The Write Stuff: Erica Lewis on Being a Eulogist of Memory
The Write Stuff is a series of interview profiles conducted by Litseen, where authors give exclusive readings from their work.
Erica Lewis lives in San Francisco where she is a fine arts publicist. She curated the Canessa Reading Series at the historic Canessa Park Gallery and her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. Books include The Precipice of Jupiter (Queue Books) and Camera Obscura (BlazeVox Books), both collaborations with Bay Area artist Mark Stephen Finein, and Murmur in the Inventory (Shearsman Books, January 2013).
When people ask what do you do, you tell them ... ?
I am a theater publicist. Most people don't really know what that is, so I tell them that my job is to generally handle any media coverage or contact with the press. Although I work with creative people every day, I don't consider my job to be particularly creative, although it does have its creative moments in terms of writing and art directing and pitching productions.
I have my poetry life and my work life. Unless you know me really well, you don't know that I am an artist, that I'm not just an art enabler. In my professional life, I hardly ever say anything about being an artist myself. It's just a level of vulnerability that I don't normally share, but I guess the cat is out of the bag now.
What's your biggest struggle -- work or otherwise?
My biggest struggle is balance. Where to draw the line between work life and real life, and then finding a space for the writing life to exist. And I sometimes question why I try so hard to keep the two major parts of my life separate. I think I really need to make the distinction in order to function as an artist.
I think one of the biggest struggles I'm having right now is trying to be an artist in San Francisco. It just keeps getting harder and harder -- economically, and also very few artists, at least in my immediate generation, still live in the city. Everyone is moving to the East Bay or to another state. The scene has changed so much in the past few years. It feels like all of the artists are moving away.
If someone said, "I want to do what you do," what advice would you have for them?
Do something that you love, not something that you think others will love you for doing.
Do something because you want to do it, not because it's trendy or you think it will make you a lot of money.
Read. Read things written by the people around you, find out who they are reading and read that, find out who those writers read and read their writing. Read the classics, read the writers from the generation before you and the generation before them. You have to know your lineage before you can create something new.
Follow your instincts. It's all about gut reactions. You have to know your own voice, and finding that comes with time.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I don't consider myself successful. I consider myself someone who just works very hard. I set a lot of goals for myself, so, as someone who is more goal-oriented and driven, it is very hard to feel any level of what some would consider "success." It's very hard to feel content with something when you feel like you are constantly working to make it happen. I'd like to think that I am more focused on being happy right now than being successful.
My husband might beg to differ. He thinks I'm one of those people who are successful but just can't see it or accept their success, that a lot of people would say that what I do for a living makes me a success or being a published writer is a mark of success. I think it's a matter of perspective. It's really about how you personally define success. And maybe that definition changes with age.
When you're sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
What is your fondest memory?
All of my fondest memories take place in Ohio, where I grew up, which is interesting to me because I haven't lived there in a very long time and hardly go back to visit. Most of these memories revolve around my great aunts Christine and Louise: They were in their 60s and 70s when I was growing up and they lived in this apartment building my family owned; I'd go there every day after school and talk to them and play cards and watch the news (Nick Clooney, George Clooney's father, was our local evening news anchorman). I really learned a lot from them about life and the way things used to be. They slowed things down and moved at a much different pace; I can really appreciate that now.
Something else that I vividly remember is watching my mother get ready for work -- it was the '80s and she did it big -- the hair, the makeup, the power suit, the heels, the jewelry, the perfume. She would style her hair, line her eyes with a trifecta of vivid eye shadows, and end it all with a spray of some exotic designer scent. She was impeccable. Right down to the matching hat, gloves, and coat during those Ohio winters. This is where my love affair with fashion began. Where I learned about individuality and personal style. This is where I learned that the details mattered. My mother was haute and hot; few women could pull off what she could pull off, sartorially speaking.
While getting dressed, she would also play the morning radio show on WBLZ; this is the time when I got to hear all sorts of adult contemporary music. This is when I first heard Hall and Oates, and I'll never forget her trying to explain to me what a "maneater" was. This was back in the day, when DJs still played records, MTV had VJ's and actually played videos. I still love this music, it's part of the soundtrack of my youth. My current writing project is called daryl hall is my boyfriend and it draws inspiration from all of this.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Many. But I fall out of love many times as well.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Art can be anything that moves you. There are always debates about this; obviously it is a very subjective topic. But for me, art should ultimately just make you feel something.
I just finished watching an extraordinary film called Marina Abramovic The Artist Is Present; I think the feeling that I have now, right after watching it, answers this question. I walked away from that film thinking about art and the role art plays on a human level. The artist as self-portrait and experience. The need to communicate something about yourself or how you view the world, the need to touch others and engage with others. What art says about our society, or doesn't. How it pushes boundaries or reflects the modern moment, or how we view the present or the past. Art says things that we can't directly say, that wouldn't be understood in any other way. It has the ability to reach millions as well as the ability to touch a single person. And that is so transformative. This is why we need art -- to see ourselves, and at times reach ourselves.
Abramovic sat for three months one-on-one opposite MOMA visitors, silently, staring at each person that sat down with her. It was amazing to watch, and terrifying, because to me, to be that open, to be face to face with person after person after person, connecting with them, exchanging energy, I don't know if it's personally possible. But maybe that's what I try to do in my writing. It certainly took a toll on Abramovic emotionally and physically, and probably psychically as well. But I think that is the point of art. To be able to say something about yourself that's bigger than yourself, engage in the human condition, open yourself and others. Provide an experience. Make people feel something. In society today, everything is so sped up, so geared toward brief attention spans, instant connectivity, and immediate gratification. I think it's necessary to slow down and take in something, a painting, a poem, a performance, that makes you think, and to also think outside of yourself, to be present. I believe this ultimately helps us communicate with each other better and on a different level.
What are you working on right now?
I'm writing a poetry project called daryl hall is my boyfriend. Each poem takes its title from a line/lines of a Hall and Oates song. The poems are not "about" the songs or what they "mean," but rather the feelings, experiences or memories that happen when listening to the songs, what they evoke. The tag line I've been using is nostalgia written with a pop sensibility.
I also have a new book out called Murmur in the Inventory. It's essentially about fragmentation, being haunted, and how sometimes you are your own ghost. There are about 75 poems written in different "voices" throughout five sections; my two previous books had visual art components and Murmur is the first that does not contain visual art -- a departure that, I think, has yielded some pretty interesting textual results.
Dan Thomas Glass, who's such a wonderful writer and friend, recently called me a eulogist of memory, and I think that's entirely fitting for both Murmur and daryl hall.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or, what kind of writing do you most admire?
The poetic work that I am doing is an ongoing examination about how we relate to one another, how we see ourselves as individuals and collective beings, and how we view the world inside and outside of the box that we put it in. I like work that is a bit challenging, but that also has many points of entry, work that turns the screw a little bit each time you read it.
I've heard what I do called avant-garde or West Coast avant-garde poetry, but really, I just write non lyric poetry and I try to use the page in a meaningful way, both textually and visually. The visual look of the page is just as important to me as the actual writing.
I read a lot of contemporary writers. I admire work where I learn something new, have a new experience, learn something about the writer, and experience language in a new way.
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