Richard O’Brien interviews
Christopher Luna for the Centerpoint,
the newsletter of Washington State University Vancouver’s Writing Center.
What qualities does
poetry have which makes it different from other forms of written words?
it’s the rhythm of poetry; even blank verse poetry is a musical pursuit. People
have different kinds of music that influence their poetry, but I think good
poets are thinking of sound. Like other kinds of writing, it is happening on
different levels. There is a reason why there is a form of poetry that is
called lyric poetry. Poetry comes from an oral tradition that did include music
at its very beginnings. I do think that people who take a holistic view of poetry
realize that it is to be heard. So that might make it slightly different from
other forms of writing; it is meant to be heard, it is meant to be shared
orally with other people.
Does all poetry
have meaning, or depth, or a message, or are there poets who purely like the
sound of certain words going together?
something called sound poetry, which is a lot like that. Also some of the Dada
writers like Hugo Ball, who is the best known, are trying to get to an essence
of poetry through the sounds without worrying about whether or not the content makes
any sense. Some people can really enjoy that level of experiment, and for some
people it completely turns them off – they need narrative content. It is like
the difference between figurative painting and abstract painting. There are
some people who will never be able to appreciate any abstract painting no
matter how masterfully it was put together because they can’t see a face and a
house and a dog or whatever. I don’t judge those people but it is a different
perspective, I guess, or a different aesthetic preference.
is widely believed that most comedians have been driven from inner pain. Have
you observed that poets, in general, have commonalities in emotional ways?
commonality is that poets and comedians are willing to look or do look at
things more closely than most people. When I say most people, I mean those who
not trying to create paintings and poems and songs. The gig almost requires an
individual to increase awareness of their environment, and awareness of other
people. It's bad to speak for or about other poets, so I should just talk about
my own experience. I think what makes me a poet is that I am a deeply
empathetic person. I have studied other poets, other painters. I try to see
what makes them tick. I think that is part of it, that poets are somehow able
to empathize at a level that maybe the average person is not, and that through
intuition, I think, but also learning a craft, they are able to make
connections between things. Other people could make those connections, they’d
be capable of them if they tried, but the difference is that the artist or poet
is always either seeing those connections or trying to make those connections.
I do think it's that big picture stuff, meaning of life type of stuff that
would lead someone to find these little synchronicities or to discover
collective unconscious. I do think that for most of the creative people I know,
at some point it becomes automatic; it's not something they have to think
about, it's just looking at everything closely, thinking about it hard, noticing
differences and similarities between things, wondering what it means or how it
fits into everything else, and asking a lot of questions. That’s one of those
things that wasn’t clear to me when I first started doing the poetry thing, but
the poet Ed Sanders pointed out how many questions there are in Ginsberg. I
think that’s the most important thing a poet can do, ask the question that
either hasn’t been asked before or ask it in a way that’s so surprising and
interesting that the audience is forced to want to try to answer it or try to
think of an answer for it. Poems don’t necessarily always contain the answers
to the big questions, but a lot of them will ask the questions, and I think
that that alone is liberating, that alone is a challenge worth taking on. Most
poets are more concerned with process than they are with product. I think
that’s why there’s a disconnect and there are certain artists who are really
able to sell and certain artists who cannot, even if the work is great. They
can’t even deal with that whole business aspect. It's because artists care
about process, and it's like once that thing is done, it's done; they've already
moved on to the next thing. Whether or not it sells or makes any money is very
secondary to most people who are doing this stuff for real. That’s also why a
lot of artists need other people to help them see that there is a possibility
of selling their stuff or getting it out. I see this with poets all the time;
sometimes even just putting together a book, which is a very simple thing to
do, becomes this enormous, insurmountable task in their head. That’s one of the
roles of the community; helping people to think about ways of getting their work
out there. To publish just means to make public, right? So anything public, including
making a little postcard with a poem on it, is publishing. A poet is published
once they've done that. I try to be encouraging, to help people see that getting
their work out there is not an insurmountable problem.
What motivates you
to generate poetry awareness?
because I feel that poetry is marginalized by the culture, disrespected. Some
of the disrespect comes from lack of understanding or from a way of teaching
poetry that is boring. I came out of the same school system as everyone else and
I found my love for poetry on my own. It’s not that I didn’t have any good
teachers. I had some good English teachers, but they almost without fail, even
when teaching the great poets, will find the safest, most boring example of
that poetry so that they won’t offend this person or that person. So the kid is
going to come out of that class convinced that first of all poetry is boring
and, second of all, it’s just one thing and that it has no relevance. Poetry
can be many different kinds of things, but they are only shown one way of doing
it, or only one way it can be, or only one way of finding meaning, which can be
really wrong. I feel like a lot of what I am doing through Ghost Town and with
the community is damage control. It's like deprogramming, it's like helping
people realize that poetry can be fun.
I don’t think it's any more complicated than that. People come out of school
thinking poetry is boring and meaningless and I believe that they can come to
one of our open mic readings and suddenly see: Oh, I’m going to hear something
that means something, that’s going to make me think, and I’m going to have a
good time. Another thing that they may notice is that the person who gets up to
the mic does not die as a result. They do not melt away like the witch in the Wizard of Oz. What actually happens at a
good open mic is that readers get a lot of love and positive energy from the
audience because people want to hear good poems and to cheer someone on for
simply having the balls to get up there, for having the courage to do it. Everybody
who is at the event knows how scary it is and how vulnerable the poets are because
most of them have done it themselves. A good open mic creates a situation that
fosters this kind of energy where everybody wants everybody else to do as well
as possible. That doesn’t mean that the audience as a whole is going to like
every single poem, that’s impossible, but they generally want to see the person
up there do well and come up with something fun.
|Allen Ginsberg and Christopher Luna in Boulder, CO in 1994|
Which people have most
influenced your art, poet or other?
When I was in my early twenties, I read Allen Ginsberg’s collected poems and
Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and
my path was set. Although I had already been writing for more than a decade, it
was then that I realized that poetry was my passion. I learned a lot about spirituality
and democratic ideals from both writers. Both are also poets of the East Coast
who write in a prophetic/bardic voice.
I also consider
Ed Sanders a mentor. I have been working with his method of investigative
poetry since I studied with him at Naropa in 1997-1999. As a performer, I have
been most inspired by Amiri Baraka, the Last Poets, Jim Morrison, and Patti
Smith. I am also inspired by blues, rock, jazz, and hip hop. I have been
performing my poetry with musicians since 1992, and have had some of the most
fruitful collaborations with jazz musicians. Jazz musicians and poets speak the
your poetry change after the move from New York
I don’t think so. Because I was already writing investigative poetry, I just
turned my attention to my new environment, and instead of writing about NYC,
began observing Vancouver, WA, which I nicknamed Ghost Town, USA. The Ghost
Town poems began as sarcastic, fish-out-of-water tales of a New Yorker lost in
the Pacific Northwest, and morphed over time into a celebration of the local
color. This diaristic, observational form of poetry has always been intended
for providing quick, sometimes necessarily superficial, snapshots of reality
rather than deep analysis of the culture. I also write collage poems, formatted
as prose blocks. The content of those has not changed very much, but hopefully
I have gotten better at writing them.
do you view your partner, Toni Partington’s work? Was her poetry part of
what attracted you to her?
Toni’s work because she bears witness to social problems, and especially the
challenges women around the world face, with compassion and indignation. It is
not easy to write social commentary that does not become dogma or propaganda.
She is very good at telling the stories of everyday people and connecting them to larger issues
such as economic disparity, oppression, mental illness, misogyny, etc.
One of the reasons that I was drawn to Toni was that I had realized that I need
for my romantic partner to be another creative person. My previous
relationships had suffered because my work was undervalued, and I spent an
inordinate amount of time translating.
|Christopher Luna and Toni Partington by Julian Nelson|
What does it mean to you to have been named the
Poet Laureate of Clark County, Washington – and do you now possess authorative
powers over the rest of us rabble?
Receiving this honor tells me that the community of writers and artists that I
have been a part of and have worked hard to nurture in Vancouver, WA
appreciates all that I have done to make the town safe for poetry. The position
is an opportunity to continue the work of helping people realize that poetry is
fun and inspiring and can be relevant to their daily lives. I look forward to
bringing my love of poetry to more people, and to meeting those in other parts
of the county that I have not yet visited. The most important idea that I would
like to make a reality is initiating a poets-in-the-schools program on our side
of the river.
What do you see for yourself in the future with regard to your art?
I hope to find a publisher for the book-length version of Ghost Town, USA (an earlier version of which was released as a
chapbook in 2008) and a book of prose poems. I also hope to continue to grow as
a visual artist, incorporating paint into my mixed-media collages.
What can we see next from Ghost Town Poetry and how can people get
We are accepting submissions from previous open mic participants for a second
volume of the Ghost Town Poetry anthology, to be published in 2014 (our tenth
anniversary). We will also have featured readings by Kelly Keigwin and Sam
Mackenzie, Ingrid Wendt and Ralph Salisbury, Dawn Thompson, Stephanie Lenox,
Doug Marx and Katharine Salzmann, Rob Gourley, Maggie Chula, and National
Student Poet Miles Hewitt. Those who want to know more can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or
visit Printed Matter Vancouver’s website: www.printedmattervancouver.com.
Clark County Poet Laureate Christopher
Luna is a poet, publisher, visual artist, teacher, and editor. He has an MFA in
Writing and Poetics from the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at
Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.