Steven Gray has lived in San Francisco since the 1970s and reads his work all over town. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He has two books of poetry: Shadow on the Rocks (2011), and Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012). He also writes reviews for Litseen.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
I write and play music. I used to work for a criminal defense attorney (part-time), but that ended a few years ago.
What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?
Making a living, although sometimes it pales in comparison to whatever political or metaphysical forces I’m wrestling with.
If someone said “I want to do what you do,” what advice would you have for them?
“To be is to do – Socrates
To do is to be – Sartre
Do Be Do Be Do – Sinatra”
It’s an old joke, but I couldn’t think of anything else.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
Successful at what? Staying alive? Yes. Accumulating piles of writing? Yes. Publishing books? No.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I like rockabilly, and this one makes me smile (The Cramps – “Tear it Up”):
My grandfather on my father’s side. He didn’t go any further in school than he had to, but he was a mechanical whiz. He built his own airplane back in the 1920s. He would get spare parts by going around to the crash sites. Pilots were kind of reckless back then, especially the barnstormers. This was in the Midwest. One day his best friend went down in a crash — a man who was married with a couple of kids. The woman who would become my grandmother put her foot down, saying it was either her or the planes. He chose the latter, but he eventually went back to her. She grounded him, so to speak. I suppose my existence was riding on their getting back together. The Depression hit in 1929 (speaking of crashes), and he never figured out a way to work on planes.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I don’t remember if I admired anyone in particular (being a little dense), but I wanted to be a paleontologist or a race-car driver.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
My brother and I have gone hiking and rock-climbing in the Anza-Borrego desert for many years. It is close to the Mexican border, about an hour east of El Cajon where my father lives. And I have been to Joshua Tree a number of times. Those are the kinds of wilderness I like. I have also been in the Desolation Wilderness near Emerald Bay at Lake Tahoe, walking across enormous slabs of rock, and sleeping in a cabin in the woods on the edge of the lake. A week in the wilderness would involve those elements, along with a fireplace (and hopefully my wife).
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I grew up mostly in California, during a time when things were loosening up. Girls took their clothes off all the time. I met a young woman in the Yuba River and had known her for hours before I saw her with clothes on. When I was in high school I had a life-drawing class at Otis Art Institute with nude models. I remember smoking a joint on a sunny porch in San Pedro with a naked college woman and I never touched her. I later realized she probably wanted me to. The point is, no one bothered with a striptease, which is kind of old-fashioned. They just took their clothes off. I did have a pair of jeans that were so torn and shredded it amounted to indecent exposure, but that’s about it.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
I have enough to fly out of the country, but when I landed I would be broke.
What’s wrong with society today?
Off the top of my head, I would say the lack of publicly owned banks, the control of Congress by a foreign government (Israel), and all that money going to prisons instead of schools.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
No. I won’t even take aspirin. Not sure if it’s a phobia or what, but I don’t trust the pharmaceutical industry. I had a friend who got hooked on Ritalin and eventually killed himself. One reason I’m wary of drugs is I know how powerful they can be — and in small doses — having taken hallucinogens in the past. I had no bad experiences, but it leaves you with a certain respect for what drugs can do.
What is your fondest memory?
Here is one of them: I was 18 or 19, and had backpacked into the high Sierras with a friend from college. We were at a mountain lake near the tree line. On the following afternoon we took LSD. It was pretty strong back then. At some point I wandered off, sitting among the rocks, watching a deer, then walked to the edge of the lake. I touched the surface of the clear water with my hand. There were diamonds forming at the ends of my fingers, and a trout swam underneath my hand. The water was so precious I could barely touch it. Then I looked up and saw my friend doing a cannonball off a boulder into the lake.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
It depends on what I’m falling in love with. If it’s a piece of music, it could be once or twice a week. If it’s the city I live in, it could be once a month or more. If it’s the woman I live with, it happens all the time.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
The arrest and trial of the people in the Cheney/Bush junta, with full disclosure of what really happened on 9/11.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
If someone asked me, “What is art?” I would point to the work of Francis Bacon or Henry Moore, as well as a child’s finger-painting on the refrigerator. Some people look on any sort of self-expression as being therapeutic, and therefore there is no such thing as good or bad art. I would disagree, having weathered some really boring art shows. I just submitted a manuscript of 20 poems and two satirical essays about art and artists. One of the poems is an irreverent look at Jackson Pollock, and one of the essays is about a roomful of monotone paintings at a museum and how underwhelming it was.
I’m not sure if art is necessary so much as inevitable, given what sort of creatures we are. It is necessary to not repress the impulse, since repression can lead to messed-up human beings. Art has shown that people are worthy of respect, which paves the way to human rights. Here’s a quote I came across recently. It’s a bit Eurocentric, but makes a good point:
The greatest force that enabled human rights to take hold, argues the scholar Lynn Hunt, was art. Renaissance and post-Renaissance art that represented individual experience, including individual portraiture, gave rise to ideas of selfhood and inalienability, and therefore made empathy into a sort of convention — in this manner, the studio, as seen in this show, represents both the means and possibility of subjective expression.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
I like to summon the forces of electromagnetism from my fingertips, while doing whatever I can to assure there is no distance left between the two of us when we’re lying there in the aftermath.
What are you working on right now?
I’ve been editing my journals from 1989 and 1990. Also writing a review of Richard Rhodes’ appearance at City Lights, with his book on the Spanish Civil War, Hell and Good Company.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
I would like a home with my own recording studio and lots of musical equipment, so I could play and record at any hour of the day or night. I would have my typewriter in another room — I don’t like writing on a computer, at least not the first draft. When I’m tired of words, I dive into the music. That’s the kind of work I would like to do.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
Whatever it is that drives the rents through the ceiling and makes it hard to live here for so many people.
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
A long time ago I would go out on a Saturday night with my girlfriend, driving a beat-up old Volvo with no reverse. We would bring a bottle of wine, a joint, and a few tapes for the high-powered speakers in the back and front. We might drop in on a club like the Paradise Lounge, but afterward we would head for the docks and shipyards and find a deserted area where we could have a smoke and look at an enormous floating contraption with its eerie lighting and mechanical sound-effects.
Now a night on the town tends to include a literary event. Last week I read a piece at the Redwood Room for Red Light Lit. There was lots of wine and talking with friends and hearing other writers. The wife had oysters and I had some eccentric vegetables and we took a cab home around 1 a.m. (I think).
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
There’s a seahorse in the Scripps Aquarium in San Diego which is so oddly constructed it could almost make me believe in a demented deity.
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
50 dollars = four bottles of a decent Merlot.
50 words — here are 44, I owe you six:
Men are menacing,
a backward nemesis
and very close to mean,
men who’re constituting
most of “enemy.”
Are they amenable
as menschen with a mental
bent, occasional mentors,
menial labor? Omen-
ridden, and exploring
the forbidden for better
or worse. In verse. Amen.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Jasmine flowers, toasted wheat bread, and “the smell of napalm in the morning…” (I’m lying about the last one, from Apocalypse Now).
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
Visit the moon.