Alli Warren on Work That Measures Success on Its Own Terms
Alli Warren lives in Oakland. Her first book, Here Come the Warm Jets, was just published by City Lights. Previous chapbooks include Grindin’, Acting Out, and Well-Meaning White Girl. Recent work can be read in Lana Turner Journal, Dusie, and Elective Affinities, and heard onKQED. Alli edits the magazine DREAMBOAT, co-edits thePoetic Labor Project, and formerly co-curated The (New) Reading Series at 21 Grand.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them… ?
Depends who’s asking. If they seem sympathetic to the troubling fact that, in our culture, doing is so intimately tied to employment, I’d probably say that I do lots of things, some to pay rent, and some for love. It’s probably helpful to distinguish between my job and my work, both of which compel me, but for different reasons. I’ve never had the least bit of career ambition. My job allows me to feed and clothe myself. I don’t expect it to fulfill me. I’m not sure I’d want it to.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
I have trouble ranking things — best, biggest, brightest, etc. Things change, and I am one of those dynamic things, so my thinking should reflect that. But I do struggle with finding time to read and write. I struggle with political despair. I struggle with trying to be a better kinder stronger human being. I struggle to remain open-hearted. I struggle with trust. I struggle with my relative privilege as a white American. I struggle with knowledge that my privilege comes at the cost of others’ suffering. I struggle with mortality. I struggle with actuality. I struggle with ethics and politics and aesthetics. I struggle with capitalism. I struggle with those who think capitalism’s not a problem. I struggle with speech. I struggle with the Internet. I struggle with depression. I struggle with desire.
If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?
Read books and write poems?
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
I seem to have become a “poet,” which makes me happy, and happiness seems like success. I feel activated and supported by the energies & commitments of the writing community I’m a part of. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to build a life that currently allows me to live in the Bay Area, surrounded by lovers and friends and reading groups and house readings and radical free schools and dance parties and various bodies of water.
You know when you take one of those Internet tours down memory lane? Most people I went to school with seem to have become doctors and lawyers and designers and dentists and parents. They have more schooling and better resumes than I do. I’m sure they consider themselves successful, and they should, so maybe my measure of success, and this seems like the case for many artists and writers, is different from the standard one. Maybe success should be measured by how well one fearlessly follows their heart.
I was reading Badiou’s Ethics last night, and there he mentions Lacan’s maxim, which I find quite striking: do not give up on your desire.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I’m one of those that likes my surroundings to match my mood. So when I’m sad it’s nothing but sad-sap. Broken-hearted soul, lonesome cowboy howls, depressive singer-songwriters, that kind of thing. USAmerican Gospel music does something profound to me. & this’ll do something to anyone:
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I have a horrible memory. Which I think somehow allows me to continue living. Otherwise I’d be bogged down by shame and regret. When I was 10 I think I admired Martin Luther King (I wasn’t cool enough to know about Malcolm X). My favorite book was one I ordered through that newsprint catalog for kids, Scholastic Books. The book, and I ain’t gonna try to google to confirm or deny my foggy memory, was called Ain’t That a Rainbow or Can’t That Rainbow Sing or some such. It was full of these little songs and poems and spirituals mostly in the African-American tradition. I was impressed by the writers’ ability to make something beautiful in the face of such systematic violence and repression, and the musicality throughout.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
Swimming eating drinking sunning fucking sleeping swimming eating drinking sunning fucking sleeping reading swimming eating reading fucking drinking sleeping reading.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
1st of the month & dog days of the last weeks are a marathon apart, but isn’t hand-to-mouth pretty standard now for the vast majority of the globe? I’m just one of the lucky ones who gets a paycheck that’s mostly enough to live off of.
What’s wrong with society today?
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
Coffee, alcohol, ibuprofen, Internet.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
I’ve got a high tolerance for love — it will need to be both strong and constant to affect me, and I like a lot of it, and I like it expressed tenderly and voraciously. I always seem to want more, and for the one who’s sharing it with me to never change or disappear. Lauren Berlant says “the lover hungers to have her object right where she can love it.”
I’ve got a lot of desire, but that’s different than falling in love. Is falling in love always romantic? That seems a rare bird, and dangerous, and beautiful, and the most powerful thing in the world.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
Am I among friends? Am I free here to speak of utopia?
The end of capitalism. The end of patriarchy. The end of slavery. The end of white supremacy. The end of the nuclear family. The end of human dominance of the earth.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Recently I read this little book of Duchamp interviews. Duchamp says pretty nonchalantly that art’s “just one of the activities.” I liked that.
& nothing is necessary. Which is what makes the fact that there’s Something that much more remarkable.
What are you working on right now?
I’m a very slow writer. Here Come the Warm Jets, the book that just came out with City Lights, took me 29 years to write. I hope the next book doesn’t take 29 more.
Right now, I’ve got a bunch of poems sitting in a file that are causing me a lot of pain. Something must be done with them — they need editing and to breathe — but that process is going to be very difficult. So I’ve been avoiding it. I’m working on not avoiding it.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I would like to make work that is both engaged with the material facts of the world, with real bodies, and with the fluidity or dynamism of those things, that they have the potential to change. And for this work to not traffic in bitterness, boredom, hopelessness, or naivety.
I would like to make work that doesn’t shy away from difficult socio-economic realities and that also remains tender open loving. And for this work to not traffic in dogmatism or arrogance.
I would like to make work that measures success on its own terms — work which is not satisfied with being average, but which is also not concerned with capital A Ambition. The kind of work that does not care whether it is ever published or not.
I would like to make work that won’t feel dated in 50 years.
I would like to make work that gives pleasure to the people who read it, in the variety of ways in which “pleasure” can manifest.
I admire writing that is fearless, articulate, and emotional. Which does not rule out fear, spontaneity, and intellect from being in this work.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
The self-righteous wealth of many of its residents. The rapid gentrification of its most vibrant areas. The ever-present NIMBYs. The sense, which feels distinctly Bay Area, that if one simply eats organic, drives a Prius, and buys Toms, then one has done one’s part, and things will be fine.
What are some of your favorite smells?
I know you’re supposed to shout out native plants, but I can’t help loving the smell of eucalyptus. The ocean. Rain on concrete. Purple kush. Nestling in a neck. Sweating on a dancefloor or marching on a city street.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
I’d probably spend so much time feeling guilty about the all expenses paid experience that I wouldn’t actually experience it.