by Jeff Von Ward
Yeah, Well (Punk Hostage Press) by Joel Landmine is a debut collection of poetry that really packs a wallop. I recently had the opportunity to talk about the book with the author. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our discussion.
Who is Joe Clifford and why does he hate poetry so much? (Editor’s note: Joe Clifford wrote the introduction to Yeah, Well.)
Hahahaha! Joe is a crime fiction writer I know from readings. He wrote an excellent memoir called Junkie Love about his experience as a junkie in San Francisco in the ’90s. He wanted to shoot a book trailer to promote it and needed someone to play him as young drug addict. He contacted me. We were just acquaintances then. He said he liked my “street” look, which was really a polite way of saying “Hey! You look like you could be a junkie!” He knew from my writing that I’ve had my own struggles with addiction, so we were really able to connect on that level. We spent a (sometimes harrowing) St. Patrick’s day shooting the thing down off of Sixth Street.
I think his problems with poetry are the same ones I have, that a lot of people have. So much of it is pompous and inaccessible. The language serves to obscure meaning rather than create it. In short, I don’t understand it, it doesn’t make me feel anything. Some poets use a lot of words to say very little, which to me is the inverse of the goal. The poetry I like tends to use poetry itself as a storytelling medium in a way similar to photography.
I tend to try to to write poems for people who don’t like poetry (and hopefully also for those that do). So I really wanted somebody who was not a poet to write the introduction, and I was very lucky that Joe agreed to do it.
Tell me a little about your background? You seem to have come into poetry in a more roundabout (i.e. honest) way than most. When did you know you wanted to write poetry and why? What were some of your first audiences and how has your work evolved?
I started writing poetry in high school. Typical angry-misfit-kid-discovers-cummings-and-Bukowski kinda stuff. I liked writing, and I had a couple of teachers who were very supportive. It was one of the few times I felt encouraged in school. I just found some of that stuff in an old box. It was predictably awful. At some point it just faded out, I stopped doing it. It was never something I took very seriously, and I kind of lost my way for a while, not just with my writing.
Later in to my twenties I managed to mangle my life up pretty badly. I’d been at it for a while, but the bottom fell out all at once. It was a situation where it took me a couple of years to get back even to the point of starting over, just some baseline normalcy. It was such a dark time, it almost seems maudlin now. But it was very painful, so I started writing again, just for myself, as a coping mechanism.
So when the smoke cleared, I was living in San Francisco. I had worked as a bar DJ for a long time, and had started doing that again for work, started taking some classes at city college. I was doing a weekly ’60s Soul night at a bar in the Tenderloin with the multitalented Jonathan Hirsch. He told me one night he was thinking about thinking about doing a reading series. So I told him I’d been writing and showed him some of my stuff, and he liked it and asked me to read.
That ended up being The Tenderloin Reading Series. He did it quarterly for a couple of years and that’s where I started out. Then other writers who did reading series started asking me to read or submit, and it turned into a little career. I was really lucky to get thrown in on my first shot with some really talented writers like William Taylor Jr., and Paul Corman-Roberts. I’m still a little baffled by the whole thing, I didn’t really chase it, it just kind of snowballed. I’ve never been ambitious. People seem to like what I do, and they ask me to come do it, so I do. It’s really that simple.
Living in the East Bay now, I’m really lucky to have such high caliber peers. Alexandra Naughton, and SB Stokes both put books out on Punk Hostage the same month mine came out, and Hollie Hardy just put one out this month. I’m really inspired to keep working by a lot of my peers out here: Mk Chavez, Cassandra Dallet, Tomas Moniz, John Panzer, Tom Pitts and many more.
A lot of your poems are really short and funny. It seems like you’ve spent a lot of time at open mics perfecting the timing. Is that instrumental to keeping someone’s attention? How do you know when a piece is finished? How is contemporary poetry different than a good stand-up routine? Or, say, a punk rock concert?
That’s funny, I actually mention in the book that I write poems, not monologues, you know? Like they’re intended to be read, so in that way their brevity can be a little deceptive. There are some things that come out when someone reads a thing that doesn’t happen when they listen. I’m not great about submitting, so there are a lot of people that have only heard my work, but never read it. That always bothered me a little, because though they’re conversational, I write them to be read. But there’s a performance aspect, too, that you get used to. There are pieces in the book that I’ve never read in front of an audience because they don’t always translate, it’s a different medium. Frankly it’s kind of ironic, because there’s something about the written word being read aloud that’s always bothered me. Anyway, I hope they’re not just funny.
I’ve spent a lot more of my life at punk shows than I have at readings. And I wanted to be a standup when I was a kid. So short and fast makes sense to me. But I like being at home in bed by myself way too much to ever be a good punk musician, and I’m not funny enough to be a standup. So I do this.
I tend to think of my work as being quiet, even if the subject matter isn’t always. But in the writing and the performing, it’s that get in there say what you need to say, and try and make it entertaining attitude. I’m always more comfortable doing readings at bars and places like that. I’ve done a couple of readings where that were a little bit more “literary,” where people express enjoyment by polite attentiveness. It’s confusing to me. If I can’t hear the audience, I think I’m bombing. There has to be a give and take in a live setting. If people are squirming in their seats, or looking around the room, it’s time to shut the fuck up.
What are some of your poetic influences?
I’ve actually been influenced far more by storytelling forms outside of poetry. I enjoy sentimentality, but usually textured with some humor or nastiness. I’ve always gravitated toward the personal as opposed to the epic. I like short stories a lot as a form. Roald Dahl’s adult short stories, Denis Johnson, Kafka, there was a really good book by this guy Breece D’J pancake. Vonnegut was really influental in that he showed me that cynicism and sentimentality don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Raymond Carver is HUGE for me. A lot of people that I like wrote prose poetry as well. I like Jimmy Santiago Baca a lot, and there’s another writer on Punk Hostage named Dennis Cruz that I really look up to as a poet. Shit, the first time I ever ditched school was to go to a Douglas Adams book signing, so…
I’ve also been obsessed with movies and music since I was very young. So like John Waters, and Jim Jarmusch were big influences aesthetically, and lots of old horror and cult movies. Songs show up a lot. I really like old blues and honky tonk from a writing perspective because they so deftly combine poetry and storytelling.
A few singers are also really good writers. A handful of them have probably influenced my writing more than anything else. Tom Waits, Biggie Smalls and John Prine are all really great storytellers. Jonathan Richman is a big one for me. He has that whimsical persona that sometimes can seem gimmicky, and I think for some people that stands in the way of seeing what a GREAT writer (and guitar player, for that matter) he is. He can phrase really complex life shit in such a simple, straightforward way, which is what I aspire to. There’s another guy, Dan Reeder, that probably wins for the most stuff where I think “MAN! I wish I’D written that!” His song Maybe is probably the most articulate reflection on death I’ve ever heard (and ain’t that something people have been trying to figure out forever). Again, the work is deceptively simple. Writing something that seems simple and actually says something is much more difficult than it seems.
Can you speak about the order of the poems in Yeah, Well… ? What if anything has the speaker learned about life, women, drinking, and rivalries by the end of the epilogue?
They’re not in any kind of thematic or chronological order. The editor divided them into three major themes and played with the idea of dividing the book that way, but I wanted them to mixed together. I thought it would have more texture that way. But some of the like poems ended up clumped together anyway. I don’t tend to read books of poetry or short stories in order, I’ll put them down and come back to them, jump around. I hope it holds up to read front to back.
As far as the second part of the question, well… It’s in the book. Those are questions for the reader to answer.
Why did you decide to publish your debut book with Punk Hostage Press?
Razor and Iris and I had some mutual friends. People had actually been telling me to submit to them for some time, that it would be a good fit. Then Ben told me he wanted to get in to editing, and he took some of my work to Razor. I’m really grateful to them, it was very personal, I had a lot of creative control. They’re great people, they’re good to their writers, and there are a lot of very talented people on their roster.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Don’t trust whitey, Lord loves a workin’ man, see a doctor and get rid of it.
You also recently wrote and directed a film. Can you tell me about that? How was that experience different than writing poetry?
Yeah, I made a documentary called Ladies & Gentlemen, Phatima Rude. I didn’t direct, I made it with my friend Paul King, who directed and produced. I shot and edited most of it, as well as the story editing.
Phatima is a punk drag performance artist in San Francisco. He’s been on the scene for upwards of 20 years and has been really influential on that scene, but still leads this very marginal existence. At the time we were shooting the film, he was living and working out of his van. He’s been a part of all these liminal scenes, the drag scene, the gay club scene, the queer scene in general, but in a lot of ways has been an outsider even amongst outsiders. The film touches on performance, gender identity, addiction, homelessness, but Phatima really comes to all of those things with a really unique perspective. A lot of people only know her club persona, which is very confrontational and larger than life, but as a person she is really sweet and soft spoken.
So as filmmakers, it was really important to us not to present a caricature. Phatima was very generous to us to share his story in such an intimate way. So it was my job to maintain all its texture while editorializing as little as possible. In poetry, I have more artistic license. I can rearrange or fictionalize as it suits me, as it serves the work. But here, I really had a responsibility to tell the audience Phatima’s story as it had been told to us.
That story really got its shape in the story editing. We had like 12 or 13 hours of footage with a bunch of long interviews (we ended up with two final cuts, a 25 minute, and a 38 minute). So we had everything transcribed, and it was left to me to reassemble it in to a coherent whole. So assembling the working script was where I really had to utilize my skills as a writer. Then in the actual editing, sometimes stuff from the working script we made didn’t work. There was a lot of stuff (same as in writing) that was really great, but just didn’t work in the context of the larger piece. I’m much more comfortable mercilessly cutting my own writing than I was with some of that footage. But it was kind of the same principle, like, what is the absolute minimum I can use and still tell this story? It was a learning experience for sure. The three of us collaborated pretty intensely, and I think we’re all very proud of the finished product.