“An Interview with Larry Handy
Knowing you personally I have heard you say several times that poetry is your mistress, that it is the woman in your life. Can you explain that a bit more? Where does the passion for the words come from?
I started writing poetry in 1993 when I was 15. A year later I was 16 and got into Jimi Hendrix. I began reading interviews and watching documentaries. He used to believe—maybe it was his real brain or the LSD…I think it was his sober consciousness…He said that music was Music and the every time he “made” music with his guitar he was making love to Music. Capital “M” Music. I always was fascinated with this idea of a mortal man of flesh and bone communing with this timeless, formless, presence. It is very religious if you think about it. And for me Poetry is like that. Not so much my mistress but my bride. My high school sweetheart. Like any relationship there is work. Real love is work. It isn’t a I’m-into- you-one-day and out of you another day. I think a lot of people approach marriage that way and that is why 50% of marriages fail. For me, I spend time every day with poetry, I give my blood, my being, my money, my time to it, I’m always thinking about it. And when I don’t want to write I still write. That’s a commitment. It isn’t about me it is about something larger than me. I’m just a vessel or a medium. Poetry, like music, is an ancient thing and when I call myself a poet I take it seriously. I’m partaking in this ancient thing. Poetry is older than every government, nation, religion, that exists today.
Any other passions? I know you’re a marathon runner, where does that drive come from?
I ran my first marathon after I biked my first marathon. And I did that because my buddy Ricky needed a buddy to run and bike with. My bike chain broke on my bike marathon and so I had to push it to the end of the finish line. Mind you that is 26.2 miles. After that I said “F” it. Next time I’m running. But that was just for doing races, etc. But as far as making running a lifestyle I owe it all to my former girlfriend. I had this cool girlfriend from Japan. Naomi. She was a really cool girl. Her visa expired and she had to go back to Japan and we had this long distance thing. She got depressed and dumped me. 3 months later she was dating a guy from New Zealand. When that happened to me I pulled a Forrest Gump and I ran out my house and ran into the road. I didn’t care if I got hit, I just kept running. It really messed me up. I wouldn’t call it suicidal but it was a state of “I don’t care!” And so I kept running and running and I ran hard and fast and ended up sprinting for 4 miles straight. When I finally collapsed some Jehovah’s Witness lady prayed for me and gave me a WatchTower magazine. I don’t believe in that religion but at least God sent somebody. I realized then that what I was doing was a positive outlet if I could kept a positive head. That happened in 2003 and I’ve ran 14 marathons to this date. Only now I run for me and not for a woman.
But I would say that my passion outside of writing and performing would definitely be Chinese Martial Arts. I do Tai Chi Ch’uan and Kung Fu San Soo. I’ve been practicing for 11 ½ years now. The breathing techniques have definitely helped me with my running. The way we learn to use our body is very poetic. Chinese martial arts uses poetry to describe movements. The Old Man Reaches Over a Fence and Snatches a Flower. We use that to describe a take down technique. There are others in Kung Fu and Tai Chi. Repulse the Monkey, Cloud Hands, Needle At the Bottom of the Sea, The Plum Fist Form, The Iron Flute. I love the poetic descriptions and you train your body and style of attack to be poetic. Ballet is poetry, Break dancing is poetry but with the body and martial arts and marathoning help me to realize that there is more to poetry than just words. Now having that sort of consciousness helps my actual words to be more effective.
Was there a specific moment in your life when you knew, knew deep down, that poetry was your thing?
February 17, 1993. That was when I wrote my first poem. I was 15 years old. I had written poems before but for class projects. When I was given an assignment to write a haiku for class I brainstormed my ideas for the haiku and my brainstorm became a poem. I didn’t turn it in because it wasn’t the assignment I kept it for me. So I turned the assignment in for a grade but that “for me writing” was when I knew that poetry was FOR ME. So I kept doing more brainstorms and shaping them into verse and that feeling I got was very religious or intimate or not love-at-first-sight but love-at-first-write. February 17, 2012 will mark my 19 year wedding anniversary to Poetry.
More than just writing poetry, you are a part of Totem Maples. Can you give us Totem Maples’ origin story?
By the time I graduated high school I had 200 poems written. From 1993 to 1995. That was a book’s worth. I was writing every day. So when I got accepted to college I went to this little scholarship banquet and Matt was there. I told the people that I was going to have a book published because I was serious about turning my 200 poems in. I was 17 ½ and cocky. So they announced it at the banquet. Matt was impressed and shook my hand. That is how I first met Matt Coleman. Well when school started we would see each other but not really hang out. Around October 1996 Matt and a guy named Andrew Christopherson did a rendition of Edgar Allen Poe’s Tale Tell Heart. Andrew was a tall skinny White guy but he had a deep Barry White Voice. And the audience loved it. Matt played guitar and Andrew read. Matt would still say high to me and ask me about my unpublished book of poems and ask me if I would be interested in reading my poems while he played guitar. I turned him down several several several times. I had this prejudice about open readings. I believed in reading silently and on the page. Poetry in my mind then was silent and meditative. So Matt invited me to a coffeehouse where there were singer-songwriters doing open mic. I broke my vow of silence and I read a poem. Matt didn’t play, I just read to the audience. What I found out after that experience was there was something special about a music audience that I wanted more of. I also felt a little defeated because I had some their attention but not all. I wanted to come back and redeem myself and get my revenge and give them more. So I told Matt that the following month he should play guitar behind my poetry just as an experiment. I had a stuttering issue back then that sometimes comes back to this day. So I wanted to practice with Matt because I didn’t want to be reading my poem to his guitar and be stuttering and making a fool of myself. So every day we would practice for this one little open mic show in April of 1997. And by practicing so that I could get over my stuttering I ended up memorizing my words and Matt perfected his chords, so on April 24, 1997 we brought the heat and the audience flipped out. They didn’t know if it was rapping or recitation. I told Matt that from that point on I wanted him to back me up with guitar, and that’s how it’s been since April 24, 1997. This year will be Totem Maples’ 15 year anniversary. Erik Elsey joined us in September 1997, Justin Punzalan joined us in April 1999, Brian Sadler joined us in January 2001, and Joanne Kim joined us in October 2001. We formed like a totem pole one by one. A face carved into a block of wood one by one by one. One building off of another. We didn’t recruit any musician or instrument, folks joined because they were friends and friends play with friends. I think if we would have recruited people to build a band we would not have lasted this long. Friends last longer than partners.
To be a “successful” poet the cliché is to aim for publication, but just like painting and photography, poetry is a dynamic art with so many opportunities for expression. What are some benefits that are only in performing poetry, as opposed to writing it?
The benefits that are only in performing would probably be strengthening necessary virtues that you can use in other parts of life. When you perform you have to be courageous. You have to battle stage fright and you are really sharing intimate words and thoughts with strangers. When you write for the page you don’t look your reader in the eye unless you are reading at a book signing—which is another style of “performance”. I was an introvert who stuttered and I had to teach myself not to stutter and throw myself out on the stage. This has helped me be a leader in other aspects of my life. I would say also that performing a work that was originally written adds to the complexity of the work. You are giving the receiver of the art more options and choices. A person can take my poetry to bed with them and read. A person can be stuck in traffic and listen to my poetry. A person can go out with their friends and in a concert setting be in the presence of it. More options are given.
Slam. Spoken Word. Performance. Readings. There are so many ways to get poetry out into the world. Could you explain a little about the different types of performance poetry? How does someone get involved in broadening his or her reach beyond writing solely for the page?
SLAM is a contest. Just like writing a poem for a magazine or writing a manuscript and sending your work in to be judged so you can win a prize or fellowship…that is SLAM except it is performance based. You look your judges in the eyes they see you, you see them and you get judged there. Spoken Word is what I call a “literary gumbo” of vocalization. A spoken word artist may start off with a poem then break off into storytelling, then venture off into political commentary, sexual rants, do a song and dance, go back to poetry, and end with a dramatic monologue. That’s why it’s called Spoken Word. But a lot of poetry purists think that when you depart from poetry and venture off into dramatic monologue that it is no longer poetry and so they may criticize the craft as being unstructured, but there is a craft to it. It is not always a smooth painting but a collage. Performance Poetry is poetry written to be performed or maybe not written at all, just improvised. Hedwig Gorski was the one who coined the term “Performance Poetry” because she didn’t want to publish and she wanted to distinguish her style of performance from “performance art”—her art was literature, hence “performance poetry”. You can use music or not, you can use stage lighting and props or not, you can use multiple voices or not. In performance poetry (which isn’t always about SLAM, and isn’t always about Spoken Word), the human body is the page, the human voice is the font or typesetting. And if you are a sign language poet, the fingers and hands are the font. Emotion is present in performance as well. Poetry readings are about as basic as you can get. You write a poem and you read it. I would say that if someone wants to broaden their reach beyond the page they need to start with the basics. Pick up some old Dylan Thomas recordings, Anne Sexton recordings, etc. And listen. Read the poetry while you listen to the recordings and pay attention to how they alter the words and adlib. Start with the masters. Go out to a spoken word reading and watch and listen to how they do what they do. Go to a traditional reading and watch and listen. There are so many styles and modes of poetry presentation. You may want to try your hand at it or just remain a page poet. It really doesn’t matter. What matters is awareness and respect.
Academically I know you have researched the history and the scope of performance poetry. During your research, and your own experience, what have you found to be the biggest misconception about performance poetry?
The biggest misconception is that performance cheapens or takes away from the words or the imagination of the reader. That is the prejudice that I originally had and why I kept turning Matt’s offers to play guitar to my work down in the beginning. That is also the prejudice that I have encountered by “traditionalists” who may not understand or appreciate Totem Maples. I don’t feel that performance takes away from words. I feel that performance can be bothersome if the receiver of the art is not prepared for performance. Art is very relational and it takes two to tango. And if a person has not been versed in performance and are a page person only then they may feel annoyed. But I always back up the fact that a lot of our “traditional” poetry came from performance. The troubadours invented the sestina, and primitive forms of villanelle, and some would argue the primitive pre-Petrachan sonnet. A lot of the reason why poetry is known for rhyming and rhythm has to do with performance. Rhyme helped with memorization. Books are a wonderful thing. But as more poets began experimenting on page during the Modernist period, less focus was on the stage and for a long time writers, critics, and educators created a “page-only class system”. In doing so, they forsook poetry’s heritage.
You’re also in the process of earning an MFA, which seems like such a different world than performance poetry. How did you come to your MFA program and what have you gotten from the experience? Do you have any advice for writers, especially those who have a passion for performance poetry, who are considering pursuing and MFA?
I enrolled in the MFA program at the University of California Riverside as a New Year’s resolution thing. It was a new decade. 2010. One of my goals was to apply to graduate school. I didn’t expect to get in. And I didn’t care if I didn’t get in. But dang. I got in. And instead of dropping out—because I am a marathoner and I go the distance—I stayed. And that is basically my MFA-how-I-came-to-be story. What I got out of it was the advantage of making wonderful friends who are writers. Most of my friends are artists and musicians. Now I have friends who are writers. I also honed my prose writing skills in my MFA program. Rob Roberge taught me the Two Commandments of Writing. “Thou shalt not confuse thy reader, and thou shalt not bore thy reader.” And he is a fiction professor, I wish a lot of poets would abide by those rules. Don’t confuse and don’t bore. I also developed some great self-editing skills. The MFA program didn’t make me a better writer, just a better self-editor. Now, as far as my advice for writers, both performance and non, who are interested in pursuing an MFA I would say do it if you have the time and money to do it. An MFA does not make you a “real” poet or a “good” poet. Work is what makes you a real poet and a good poet. You must work at your words every day. Your heart is the strongest muscle because it beats every day. Even when you sleep. It beats. And you have to write as the heart beats to be “real” and “good”. It’s not even about being published. Folks think that getting published makes you real. Heck no. There are a lot of poets who publish not because they are real poets but because they are Professors at a University and in order to keep their status they need to publish. And so they publish crappy poetry. It’s crap, but it’s still in print so they are “legit” as Professors. This is a dis-service to poetry. But my advice for a lot of spoken word, SLAM, and performance poets is always to read more. You exercise your craft on the stage—great! Now exercise reading. You would be surprised at the number of stage poets that don’t read. And vice versa, page poets must listen more to recordings. Cross training is what I call it. Bruce Lee was a great martial artist because he also studied dance. He had coordination because he loved dance. And he incorporated dance into his fighting. Well that is my advice to writers. If you specialize in one thing, train a little bit in another thing to make what you specialize in better. An MFA can help or hurt or nothing at all.
To wrap up, what is one poetry performance, reading or otherwise, that all poets should be familiar with?
TOTEM MAPLES!!! Hahaha. Seriously, that is a hard question to answer because I have to describe the “one” poetry performance/reading/ that all poets should be familiar with. Hmmmmm. Let me think. This may sound like a cop-out answer but I would say watch old tapes and listen to old speeches of Mohammed Ali. That sounds trivial but to me his life was a performance poem. To this day he is the most popular human being and American in the world. People who live in obscure parts of the planet know his face. And it is because he was more than just a boxer. He had a unique relationship with life and language—which is what true performance poetry is. Life and language not just page and language. Study his praises, study his rants, study his laments, study his insults, study his proverbs, and then study his vocal tone and facial expressions, study where in the world and what country he was in when he used those words. You can listen on cd, or watch on dvd… Ali material is out there. In the old ethnopoetic days when human beings lived in tribes, shaman/poets taught their tribe, praised their God and chief and people, and cursed the enemies. They didn’t have book deals. They were their poems. Ali did that. Ali was that. Whether he boasted how he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” or protested the Vietnam War by saying “No Vietnamese ever called me nigger.” He did it all with a chant and a charisma and an enthusiasm for life—boxing was just a day job. He was a poet. A poet in the old tribal ethnopoetic shaman-bard sense. I mentioned that performing taught me to not stutter and to not be overly introverted and have courage and how I incorporated those lessons into other aspects of my life—well that is it. Life is what true performance poetry is about—life! Life beyond the the stage. Life beyond the page.
- Lindsey Lewis-Smithson
Straight Forward Poetry