Charles Renn & David Shook
Brendan Constantine will read at The Hive Los Angeles, located at 1402 Micheltorena, Los Angeles, CA 90026 on Thursday 6 August 2009, with five-second-filmmaker Jon Worley, and performance artist/actor Paul Prado at the monthly event LOCALCULTURE. More information about the event is available here.
His work has appeared in numerous journals, most notably Ploughshares, The Los Angeles Review, The Cortland Review, RUNES, and LA Times Bestseller The Underground Guide to Los Angeles. His collection, Letter to Guns, was released in February 2009 from Red Hen Press. He holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in Hollywood at Bela Lugosi’s last address. This brief conversation took place by email, though all participants were within a few miles of one another.
One Million Years BC
like olive pits. Mountains
drooled fluorescent paint,
valleys filled with loose change
and lost sunglasses. In the jungles
great lizards walked on two feet,
carried flasks of warm lava,
and lied and lied and lied.
The trees had crude tattoos,
and dropped suitcases full
of money on the ground. Cats
with knives for teeth stalked
themselves under skies crowded
with sharp birds calling “Oh,
baby!” At night nothing walked,
the moon hissed at the ocean,
and the stars held each other
from Letters to Guns, published by Red Hen Press in 2009
People are always down on the LA poetry scene, comparing it to the busyness of New York and Chicago. Is that fair?
I have traveled extensively throughout the US and Europe and I have yet to discover an arts community that doesn’t want or need help. Poetry readings in Chicago and New York may enjoy greater attendance on the whole, but ask the host about the health of the series and he or she will tell you it’s a struggle. If there is anything special about LA’s case I would have to say it isn’t a problem specific to its desire for poetry. Los Angeles is distinguished from every other major city by virtue of its incredible size. LA is isolated from itself by huge distances and a feeble transit system. Our theater, dance, music and art scenes exists as islands. Manhattan or Chicago can still be crossed by train in fifteen minutes for two dollars. Under the circumstances, I think we’re doing pretty good!
Who’s who when it comes to up-and-coming LA poets?
I’m quite fond of Neil Aitken, editor of The Boxcar Poetry Review and author of The Lost Country of Sight, which took the Philip Levine Prize for 2008. I think he’s a gifted poet. I’m quite honored to share a press with both Douglas Kearney and Jamey Hecht. Kearney’s Fear, Some and Hecht’s Limousine Midnight Blue are exciting books that make me want to write. Also, I must add Sarah Maclay to the list, a brilliant poet who is long overdue for a national holiday or commemorative stamp. Her last book The White Bride is hypnotic.
Your new collection, Letters to Guns, contains several poems that are letters to guns. —That makes sense, right?— They’re among my favorites in the book, and I wondered if you have written more than the eight that appear in the book.
None that were finished. There were a few false starts, poems that derailed themselves by becoming polemic. For instance, there was one set in the Middle East, and another during the second world war and I felt that these would too easily be mistaken for opinions on political issues. In all of the letters I have tried to write about something nationless.
There’s more to the idea of the letters. In your introduction you write that the letters are indeed actual letters. In the past I’ve written false translations, to allow a distance from the speakers’ voices that I feel simple dramatic monologues—at least as we’ve been taught to interpret them—don’t permit. Why do you present your letters as real letters? I guess I’m as interested in the psychology behind it as well as any thoughts you might have about the I-speaker of lyric poetry.
I wrote the first letter after having stumbled upon the website for Guns Magazine. The classifieds section was (at the time anyway) called Letters To Guns, and for a moment, I really thought people were writing to guns! Indeed, I liked believing it. At first.
As the idea took shape as a means for poetry, a number of possibilities presented themselves and many of them seemed fraught with risk. Particularly the risk of self-righteousness. For instance, if one decided to write a few such letters, how soon would it be before one were compelled to write a letter in the voice of a shooting victim? What kind of an oaf, luxuriant enough to be able to write in the first place, presumes to speak for the suffering? And who, in a time of actual war, has the heart to read such a letter? Personally I can’t stand art as an excuse for finger-wagging. Even if I share the speaker’s outrage, the experience is always boring.
However, if I imagined the voices of Things—trees or clothes or silverware—and made them my speakers, poetry might emerge free of any moral agenda. Furthermore, by presenting a collection of such letters with the assertion that they were real—a completely ridiculous demand of the audience—the reader might let down their guard long enough for me to get ‘personal.’
You’ve got a lot of earrings. What’s up with that? How important is it in poetry to be a badass?
It could not be less important. Honestly I am about as threatening as a fistful of schwarma.
Living in Los Feliz, East Hollywood, what draws you to the neighborhood and what, if anything, can be done to promote local literary talent?
I am Hollywood born and raised! As to what can be done to raise awareness of our artists, I think… well… I think success is the child of audacity. I mentioned before that Los Angeles is a city isolated from itself. I think the ‘scene’ that seeks communion, that makes an effort to reach out to other groups, becomes the heart of all groups. For instance, if a writers group in Los Feliz created an event for the poets of Venice Beach or Leimert Park, if we had an annual visit from the poets of Orange County and in turn were able to get Beyond Baroque (Venice, CA), The World Stage (Los Angeles, CA) and The Ugly Mug (Orange County, CA) to return the favor, we would extend our audiences enormously.
We can’t just print flyers and shout online. We must, we must, we must fill seats for each other. If we are not responsible for the excitement, then we are complicit in the boredom.
Charles Renn is owner of The Hive Los Angeles and The Apiary, a hair shop and art gallery, respectively, in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. He is co-chair of the Silver Lake Arts Committee, a sub-committee of the Silver Lake Neighborhood Council.