A Ten Question Interview With The Artist…Jay Passer

Why do you write?

It’s cheapest. I don’t have to go to the art store and buy a bunch of shit to express myself, to meditate, to isolate, to work out the demons. I got a pen, a scrap of paper, I’m good. I write to get away from the chaos. I’m pretty much a loner, I hate crowds and even small gatherings – I just smile and nod at most people, waiting for my chance to get lost. I use writing to connect to whatever it is that people make me want to run away from.

What books do you read?

I just finished all of Henning Mankell’s Wallander books. If I really like a writer I generally plow through their entire oeuvre. Now I’m into the crime fiction of Peter Rabe. When I was younger I was pretty snobbish about genre writing, but these days I’ll read anything as long as the writer has a good line. I need to feel like I’m in good hands. My first exposure to Flannery O’Connor, I was just astonished. The same with the novels of Samuel Beckett. Watt still kills me. Romain Gary, Momo. Earlier Cormac McCarthy. Harry Crews. Irvine Welsh. Kathy Acker. I’m more into style than ideas. I’ll take Bataille and Cendrars over Sartre and Camus, for instance. I’m always in the middle of some volume of art history or another, far as nonfiction goes. Right now it’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art, by Wassily Kandinsky.

What inspires you?

Irony.

How did you know you were a writer, and when?

With children it starts with a massive curiosity. For me, they gave me a camera, a Kodak Instamatic. I took pictures and wanted to make a book out of the pictures, an ABC book. I was maybe 5 or 6 years old. Then I’d pull off some weird shit, which used to piss off my old man, because he’d get the film developed, and there’d be this picture of a wall, or a pillar, and nothing else. I used to get my sister to take a picture of the wall, but the trick was, I was actually standing behind the wall, so in my mind, I was still in the frame, without it showing in the picture. Like a ghost portrait. Cool, right? Conceptual Art. But that kind of thing drove the old man crazy. He didn’t understand it. I doubt I understood it. “Quit wasting film!” he’d yell.

Writing is applicable to all the arts. It’s at the core of everything. The story is the target. The work is the arrow. The writer is the archer.

How do you deal with rejection?

It doesn’t phase me, but then again, I’ve had plenty of it, I’m used to it. A person can get used to anything, tropical insects, a padded cell… I was driven when I started, I wrote every day, hours and hours, I wouldn’t leave the room until something was finished, a poem, a letter, a piece of prose. So I had this bulk of material, a real stack, and I figured I’d just start at the bottom and work my way through, as far as sending the stuff out. Mind you, these were the days of the portable typewriter, the post office, and 4-6 months of waiting for your work to make it back. I just went apeshit at the start, sent out a great big batch. I fully expected to fail, miserably, over and over again. How romantic! Well, with the very first batch I got 5 poems accepted in Caliban magazine. I was 23. When it arrived in the mail, I couldn’t believe it. William Burroughs was in it. Maxine Hong Kingston, Wanda Coleman. Charles Bernstein. I danced around the room with my cat. Caliban is now online, I have a few pieces in #17, out just last year. Which means I’ve had a nice relationship with Lawrence R. Smith, the founder and editor, for over 26 years. But believe me, Larry’s rejected plenty of my work. Rejection is just part of the process, like dying is a part of life. If you let it bother you, hang it up, you’re going nowhere.

Who are some writers you admire?

Misti Rainwater-Lites. Cassandra Dallett. Koraly Dimitriadis. Jayinee Basu. A.D. Winans. Scott Wannberg. Subhankar Das. Ben John Smith.

Is writing the only artistic medium you do?

I’ve daubed a bit, but not much worth mentioning.

What would be some advice youd give your younger self?

Shut your mouth and listen, kid. Don’t take things so damn seriously. Quit acting like women are goddesses on a throne and just be yourself. Try to party in moderation. Save the cynicism for combat scenarios. Cultivate a remunerative career to fall back on because you’ll never make jack shit writing. The thing is, I wouldn’t listen back then. I’m only just beginning to hear the music.

Do you have any advice for other writers?

Persevere. Save everything, even if you think it’s garbage – it’ll look different over time, and you might end up using it in a new and unexplainably fresh manner. Endure the petty machinations of the pest, the boss, the ignoramus – they just want you groveling at their level to feel vindicated. Live your life, don’t just WRITE all the time. Avoid imitating your heroes. Don’t bother insulting the wannabes. Grow some vegetables. Recycle.

What is your writing process?

I write it down, then I edit. At this point it’s compulsive, so there’s no schedule. Like I said, I used to be pretty manic about it, but over time I realized you can’t force it, there’s no point, and that’s how it’ll look if you do – forced. Of course, that doesn’t mean I sit around waiting for any divine spark to descend from on high. It takes work, like anything else. And yet, any fool can scribble away for ten lifetimes and still come up with not a hell hole of a lot.

Jay Passer 2

Jay Passer’s work has appeared online and in print since 1988. He lives and works in San Francisco, the city of his birth. His latest chap, Flower Omelette, co-authored with Misti Rainwater-Lites, is available from Lulu.

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