The State of California vs. Ex-Lover #17
Your Honor, I had to
cut off her legs
to make sure she wouldn’t
come waltzing back into my life.
(Excerpt from B Is for Bad Poetry, Sterling Publishing, 2009)
When Feathertale editors picked up Pamela August Russell’s book B Is for Bad Poetry (Sterling Publishing, 2009) and groaned through the first few poems, we couldn’t help but think this was exactly the kind of bottom-of-the-barrel verse we have been aspiring to since time immemorial. When approached for an Egregious Interview, Pamela acquiesced, telling us “the more egregious, the better.”
JUST THE FACTS
Born: Long Island, New York
Lives in: Los Angeles, California
Favourite books growing up: The Nancy Drew series, Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, the complete works of E.E. Cummings
Favourite poets: Frank O’Hara, Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, and the list goes on . . .
First job: Drive-thru order taker at Burger King
Favourite day of the week: “Sunday is just one of those days where you feel like you can say no to everything.”
What’s in her purse: “If I had a purse, you’d probably find Jimmy Hoffa in it.”
What inspires her: Fear of death
Currently working on: A book of short stories entitled A Collection of Tiny Lies, and a book of non-fiction entitled Dorothy Parker Drank Here, about famous literary watering holes around the world
JUST THE ANSWERS
FEATHERTALE: Do you like LA?
PAMELA AUGUST RUSSELL: I came for television; I sort of did it but not quite. Reality TV took over and there were a lot of extra sitcom writers, so I just started writing books instead. It’s beautiful weather and it’s a great city, but, you know, there are a lot of people here who have been damaged by fame and money and all that stuff, so it’s fascinating.
FT: Book reviews call you a “new voice,” and you’ve said you came to writing later in life. How long have you been writing professionally?
PAR: Professionally, maybe ten years. I’ve always been writing. I just didn’t know you could make a living at it.
FT: With poetry it can be especially tough to make a living.
PAR: Poetry is still that dirty little secret that people don’t talk about. It’s like the bastard child of literature. Poetry isn’t mainstream. It’s not. It was hard with me writing (B Is for Bad Poetry). I met a lot of people who said, “I’ve never read a poem.” I thought, really? I can change that. A lot of people think it is very, very academic and elitist, and that may be true. I think it is true. I don’t mean to be all narcissistic about it, but it was my intention to make people enjoy poetry.
FT: What was the first thing you ever had published?
PAR: A short story called “Who the Hell Is Virginia Woolf?” It was a story about what I didn’t really know about literature. I came to being a writer later in life so there was a lot of stuff I just didn’t know. There were writers I’d never heard of.
FT: I know what you mean. I felt infinitely better about myself when Feathertale interviewed David Rakoff and he said he’s read less than twelve per cent of the books he owns.
PAR: Absolutely. I think thirty to forty per cent of the books I have, I haven’t read. If books don’t grab you by the first chapter, you’re done — I’m done, at least. And I don’t feel an obligation to finish, even if it’s something you’re supposed to read like War and Peace. I’m like, well, I’d rather drink my own urine, but thank you.
FT: Ha! On that note, do you think humour is underdeveloped in poetry?
PAR: Absolutely. It’s very rare. Dorothy Parker certainly brought it to the forefront, and even people like Billy Collins have very humorous poems. But people are starting to say, “Oh, a poem can be both humorous and poignant, just like a story.”
FT: So what attracts you to Dorothy Parker? You’ve mentioned her several times and she features strongly in your poems.
PAR: Her wit and her sorrow. Some of her most famous poems, like the one about killing yourself, what’s it called? She’s talking about suicide and says don’t bother, it’s a pain in the ass to kill yourself. Besides, what if you fail?*
*Resumé by Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
There’s an honesty and a reality and it’s not just all knock-knock jokes — which are really important, by the way.
FT: Knock-knock jokes are really important?
FT: In your book you deal with a lot of heartbreak too. You just tackle it from this unexpected perspective. Did you deliberately decide to use humour or did it come naturally?
PAR: I think that’s who I am. Humour has always been a wonderful defence as well as a tool. I think it permeates pretty much everything — sometimes to the point where I come off as glib, and that might be a problem. I can handle the rough stuff, but I think humour is a great way to get through the day. Everyone has been through heartbreak — it’s not pretty, it’s devastating. But at the same time, you know, what are you going to do? Welcome to life, right?
FT: Why did you decide to write a book of bad poetry?
PAR: I think it gives people licence to not be perfect. It will make people gravitate toward the book and say, “Oh, it’s bad! How bad is it? I write bad poetry.”
FT: But what makes it bad?
PAR: I don’t think it is bad poetry. People come to readings and are confused. I’m hoping it is actual poetry. It’s sort of saying, look, you aren’t going to be repelled by this.
FT: Why is more classic verse like Browning or Donne so inaccessible to most people?
PAR: Poets like Donne and nineteenth-century poets, they require a lot of effort. If you’ve never read Donne before, you can’t just read a Donne poem. You need to be sitting with a professor, asking what did this term mean back then.
FT: How did you get this book published?
PAR: In the mid-nineties, the whole poetry slam thing had started to re-emerge and everywhere poetry readings were popping up. I would go and people would literally just read out of their diary. It got to the point where a friend and I created the Better Off Dead Poets Society and we decided to go up on stage and just mock it. We were going for the jugular and people found it really, really funny. It became this thing and we toured all over. I put this little chapbook together and I meant to sell it but I never did, I just gave it to people because I felt so bad. A lot of the poems (in B Is for Bad Poetry) I wrote during that time.
FT: How long did you tour?
PAR: We did it for two or three years. It got to the point where people would yell out poems like at a rock concert: “Do Despair: Party of One!” In 2008 I flew to New York to speak with a literary agent about another book I had done, and she hated the book but she loved the chapbook. I got a call three weeks later, publishers loved it and wanted to publish it, and that was that.
FT: If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
PAR: If it didn’t matter, I would be a burlesque dancer.
FT: What do you mean if it didn’t matter?
PAR: If you didn’t care about your reputation or anything, that would be really fun. Travelling the country doing burlesque, like tassels on your boobs and stuff, I mean, that would be really fun, don’t you think?
FT: Um, I think I’d rather die, probably.
PAR: Oh, well either that or a painter.
FT: What do you hate most about being a poet?
PAR: Oh good Lord, you’re throwing out trick questions! There can be frustrations when you just can’t find, literally, the word or you can’t make something work. Also, being alone. What’s strange is, I’m a very social person but I have to enter this little place and be very, very alone when I’m writing. One has to sit with one’s thoughts for God knows how long. It could be a day; it could be three weeks just writing one story or one poem.
FT: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
PAR: I’m going to go with prison — because it’s a crime to write bad poetry.