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Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian

Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian
Christopher Luna by Alisha Jucevic for the Columbian

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Christopher Luna talks to The Centerpoint March 2013

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?

I think 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?

There is 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.

It is widely believed that most comedians have been driven from inner pain. Have you observed that poets, in general, have commonalities in emotional ways?  

One 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?

It’s 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.

Sometimes 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 same language.
Did your poetry change after the move from New York to Vancouver?

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.

How do you view your partner, Toni Partington’s work?  Was her poetry part of what attracted you to her?

I admire 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 involved?

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 or visit Printed Matter Vancouver’s website:

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.

1 comment:

David Evans said...

A poem from the heart of a Palestinian swimming in a sea of prejudice propaganda and other media lies: