A lot of people ask me that question. And it’s a valid one, as I’m wearing it in most every photo. Though, there are certain spoken word videos where I don’t wear it, or a bandana: “All The Times” and “Human Condition” are two videos that come to mind. I also never wear it in the shower, to bed, or to work. Haven’t worn it to a funeral either. Or when getting a driver’s license photo.
As for how I acquired it, that would’ve been back in the 90s when I was in a band called Bloom. When we were performing up in S.F. I had some downtime one day to visit North Beach. There was a cool African shop on Grant Street. The hat was sitting in a wicker basket tucked away in the back of the store. I tried it on. Not only did it perfectly fit my head, but it fit my personality as well.
At first, I never wore it much. With time, I began to wear it more and associate it with certain memories: namely my dear friend Jett that played lap steel in Bloom. We had a duo side project called Fuzzy Doodah. Jett would get this great sound out of his instrument—a chainsaw music for angels, I called it—while I did spoken word. Unfortunately, Jett eventually drank himself to death. But the hat was still around to remind me of the good times I had with him, and other special moments in my life too. In a way, I guess you could say the hat is a memory chest I wear on my head. It also evokes a sense of the Southeast, a part of the country I cherish. So I love that aspect as well: the hat has a lot of Southern soul, a lot of grit, a lot of ju ju.
It’s been through a lot: has been run over by a car, manhandled by countless airport security guards, stitched up with needle and thread, superglued a few times. It’s a regular Frankenhat. But it keeps on going strong. One day I suppose I’ll have to retire it. Or who knows? Maybe it’ll outlive me.
I know you mainly write poetry, but you’ve also written a couple novels. What’s your writing process? Is it the same for both genres, or different?
I approach both quite differently. When working on the novels, I was very regimented. I’d sit down most every day for a set period of time because that type of writing demanded a specific focus and endurance. It’s really like being an athlete: a writing athlete. Novel writing never came naturally to me. It was something I had to work hard at. But it was something I wanted to do, mainly to prove that I could do it. Luckily I had a very good writing teacher at the time: Sid Stebel. He taught me a lot about novel structure, and how to tell a story in long form. With poetry, it’s not quite as structured. For me, poetry is more emotional. More esoteric. Sometimes more elusive. I have a difficult time making myself write a poem on the spot. Often, a piece will evolve over a period of time from notes I’ve written in my journal. Other times, I’ll be so inspired by an idea that the poem will literally spill out of me. I can’t even move my pen fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. I just love those moments.
Do you ever write pieces specifically for performance, and other pieces specifically for the page?
I’m sure most poets, and most writers in general, will agree with me on this point: Certain words look more elegant on the page, while others have more power when read aloud. Sometimes you witness a poet perform a piece and you think it’s amazing. Then you see the same poem in print and it’s schlock. Conversely, you can read a powerful poem on the page, and then hear it read aloud and it’s a yawnfest. Sure, that can have something to do with the poet’s delivery. But I think it also has something to do with words themselves. Some are elegant jewels that need to be showcased on the pristine whiteness of a page. Other words contain a spark and fury that demand they be read aloud.
Once I really surprised myself and was able to write a piece for both performance and the page. It’s called “The Los Angeles Book of the Dead.” The idea came to me after reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which in some ways is a manual on how to escort someone from the living life to the afterlife. I then connected that idea to living and dying in L.A. The city has so many diverse areas, if you could spend your afterlife in say Beverly Hills, that afterlife would look a lot different compared to an afterlife in Silver Lake or Hollywood. I’d originally written it as a performance piece. But once it was done it actually looked good on the page. I sent it out to a few places for publication, and eventually a wonderful editor at the L.A. Times, Donna Frazier, picked it up.
I see that Bob Holman wrote the introduction for your new poetry collection 8th & Agony. That’s quite an accomplishment. How did that happen?
Yeah, I’m really quite honored. I hold Bob in such high regard. He’s been such a crucial figure on the poetry/spoken word scene for years now. I’ve known him since the 90s. Can’t remember exactly how we met; all I can say is I’m so grateful that our paths crossed. We’ve performed together a couple times, and he was extremely instrumental in helping me to share the stage with Patti Smith at the Knitting Factory in NYC. I’ll always be indebted to him for that. He also had me help him co-judge a Jewel poetry contest (yep, we’re talking Jewel the songwriter). Back when she released her poetry collection A Night Without Armor, she’d asked Bob to judge a poetry contest she’d created as a way to promote the book. Bob asked me to assist him.
At the time I was working a drab office job. Once I’d agreed to help judge the contest, poems were emailed to me from all over the world. We’re talking everywhere from Perth, Australia to Perth Amboy, New Jersey. My days became a juggling act of trying to get work done while reading poems from tortured teens and housewives all over the world. Some poems were quite well written. Some would even make me laugh out loud. Others were so bad, so maudlin, I’d practically be yelling at my computer screen. Since I was never that engaged in my office work, my boss became suspicious. He’d occasionally walk by my desk to make sure I was getting work done. I got very good at flipping between screens—from a dreary poem about bulimia to a spreadsheet or piece of inner-office correspondence. Ah, the things I’ve done for poetry. And Jewel.
But back to Bob: he’s really been such a dear friend and true mentor over the years. Currently he’s traveling the world, working on a series that deals with endangered languages. That’s one of the things I love most about Bob: he’s a true warrior for the word.
Your new collection is being released by L.A.’s Punk Hostage Press. Why did you decide to go with them?
Punk Hostage was created by two poets I greatly admire: Iris Berry and A. Razor. I’ve known Iris for years through the L.A. music scene. No matter what we’ve been involved with, we’ve always shared a mutual admiration for one another’s work. When I heard she was starting the press I knew right away I wanted to work with her. She understands me. She understands my work. And really, what else could any artist ask for? Whatever you’re doing, in whatever medium, you want to surround yourself with people that support you. I was very excited when Iris and Razor agreed to publish me. Not only do I love their poetry, but I also admire their mission. They’re turning Punk Hostage into a non-profit. They want to take books into prisons, battered women’s shelters, and other facilities where the power of the word can allow others to share their own stories and hopefully transform their lives.
I notice that you often use music within the context of performing spoken word. How did it come about?
Before performing spoken word, I was a musician, primarily a drummer. Being a drummer, I’m quite keyed in to rhythm. To me, poetry is all about music and rhythm. I love to mine the music and rhythm of words when performing solo. But when performing with music, the ante is upped. The music becomes a medium that allows me to delve deeper into the rhythm and musicality of the words. I’m quite fortunate in that I’ve been able to collaborate with some very solid, very creative musicians over the years: Jeremy Toback, Butch Norton, Lynn Coulter, Herb Graham Jr., Jamie Catto & Duncan Bridgeman, Andrew Bush, Rich Mangicaro, Paul Garrison, Herwig Maurer, Adam Yasmin, and currently Bo Blount. Bo and I form a duo called We Voice Sing (www.wevoicesing.com). It’s a hybrid of spoken word and music. I’m even singing on a few pieces. To me, that’s the best: when I’m getting to speak my words, and sing them too.
I notice you’ve created numerous spoken word videos. What inspired you to move into that genre?
Six years ago, I began thinking I needed to diversify—bust out from the page and stage—into other mediums to get my work out into the world. Around that time a dear friend Gerry Fialka approached me. He heads up a PXL Film Festival here in L.A.
A little bit of history: Pixel Cams were the black-and-white camcorders released by Fisher Price back in 1987. They never caught on with kids, but indie filmmakers began using them. So Gerry created a film festival to showcase the films people were making with the camera.
Gerry asked if he could film me performing a spoken word piece. Of course, I was all over it. Our collaboration turned out to be my very first, and one of my most popular videos “Bones“. Since then, I’ve created a number of videos with directors like Mark Wilkinson and Chris Burdick. A few contain various actors, musicians and are elaborately produced. Some simply feature me, sitting in front of a camera in my living room, performing solo.
What writers have inspired you?
As for poets, I enjoy so many from so many different schools of style and thought. Some that come to mind: Patti Smith, Jim Carroll, Neruda, Rumi, Sam Shepard, Richard Brautigan, Russell Edson, Bukowski, Wanda Coleman, Sylvia Plath, Mary Oliver, Kevin Young, Terrance Hayes, Tomas Tranströmer, the Beats, Delmore Schwartz, Leonard Cohen, Marvin Bell, Milo Martin, Scott Wannberg, S.A. Griffin, Yvonne De La Vega, Iris Berry & A. Razor.
As for fiction writers, I tend to gravitate towards ones that have a certain sense of music and magic to their words, or ones that are economical and leave more space for the story to breathe: Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Michael Ondaatje, Paul Auster, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, Mark Richard. I also love George Saunders. Love the way that guy thinks.
Any final words for the TNB audience?
Here’s something I strive for every day, sometimes it comes easily, other times it’s a bit more difficult: Whatever you’re doing, do what you love and love what you’re doing.