D.W. LICHTENBERG: the writer, politics and platforms

Sun Feb 27 11, Que Tal

(Evan Karp)

D.W. Lichtenberg, 26, is author of The Ancient Book of Hip, about which Evan Karp has said: “After several reads, each with its own artfully stealth rewards, the book becomes a meditation on the intersections of need and expression and posits the basis of identity as a relationship between these two.” Dan has a lot to say; in the course of our conversation we talked about the differences between poetry and fiction, New York and San Francisco, the role of politics in art, and the responsibilities of being a human—specifically the importance our culture places on sustainability and its relative lack of care for human rights in other countries. This is part one of a two part interview conducted in conjunction with a profile for SF Weekly.

Evan Karp: When did you start writing? Not your first scribbles you know but the first time you thought ‘I’m going to create something!’

D.W. Lichtenberg: Well, before I was “a writer,” I thought I wanted to be a filmmaker, so I went to school for film, and throughout high school I sort of made movies, little short movies, with video cameras or whatever, which is totally different than poetry because there’s no narrative involved, and it’s very constricting, narrative. So I don’t really know when the shift happened. Probably sometime during college; I probably wrote without realizing it in high school, but probably the first time I actually started writing was Sophomore year in college, maybe when I was like really depressed or something.

EK: You were up in New York then, right?

DL: Yeah, I went to NYU, and I grew up in Philly so it wasn’t that far from where I grew up.

EK: It’s different though—I know that little picture in your book of you sitting at a table up in NY. I’ve only been to NY a couple times but I feel like it’s so big—

DL: It’s massive and it’s very intimidating. But it’s actually more my speed than San Francisco, honestly. In SF it’s funny because … the writing community itself is kind of indicative of SF vs. NY. In NY, people are like really go-getters and interested in sort of the business side of thing as well as the artistic side of things, and into the spirit of competition—to a certain extent—sometimes it can get pretty bad in that respect. People are just so cutthroat about it; they’re willing to step on anybody who’s in their way, even in the literary community where the stakes are very small. I mean there’s not any money in writing, really … You’d be amazed when you hear someone say they have a book published, they just assume you have a certain amount of money. But no, there’s no money. There’s absolutely none. But in New York, despite that, they’re completely cutthroat. Whereas here, on the flip side, some people are so uninterested in that competitive business-feel, that they’ll just publish their friends and [consequently] publication kind of becomes diluted, you know. There’s no real curatorial process. So there’s bads for both communities. But that’s the way I sum up New York vs. San Francisco.

EK: What would you say the goods are?

DL: Oh, well I mean SF as a community is definitely great. The fact that everybody is friends is both good and bad, and [the fact that] everyone is supportive of each other has both good things and bad things, whereas in New York everyone’s kind of on their own and they form these little niche groups where they’re like they entrench into these groups and try to compete against other groups, you know, that’s kind of the mentality. Whereas here it’s more of a helping hand for everybody, and like I said both have good and bad. And which do I prefer? I probably prefer the New York school of thought. But it is great to belong to a community in San Francisco.

EK: You are currently working on a novel right now, is that right?

DL: Yeah, sort of. I kind of stopped writing in 2009, and then in December of 2009 I started writing again—started writing a novel, for whatever reason. I guess because I wanted to explore things that were much more complex in an exploratory way, because in poetry it’s more about being very refined with what you’re saying—in general—but I wanted to be a maximalist in the way that I approach it so I started writing a novel. And then about a year later, in November of 2010 I finished the novel, pretty much – the first draft – and then I looked at it and I realized that there was room for another narrative thread that I had wanted to put in there—not another narrative thread, but another character, essentially, because there’s no real narrative in this book, unfortunately. So I’ve pretty much finished the book except that I want to put this other character in it.

EK: How was the experience different for you writing the novel than the book of poems?

DL: Well the poetry comes a lot more organically to me because there’s no rules, and some people thrive within this concept of narrative arc inside of a novel and I don’t, it’s too constricting for me to deal with. So what ends up happening is I treat it as much as I can like a structured beast but approach it the same way that I approach my poetry, which is mostly as a “free-writer” as opposed to a “structured writer.”

EK: I was going to ask if you sat down any differently or tried to establish any different kinds of routines.

DL: I wrote one manuscript before this—

EK: Before The Ancient Book of Hip?

DL: Yeah, before the book of poetry (as well). And I thought that was actually more successful in the writing process because I created a world that every time I started to write—this is to me the way that you actually are able to make a novel, which is you create a world inside your novel that you want to write in, so whenever you sit down at your computer or wherever you’re writing, you take solace in the fact that you are in this world. And that’s how I wrote that one; this one I’ve struggled on that because I felt like the one main character was much more … he didn’t really know what he wanted in life, and his world was actually really sad to be in, so it was really hard for me to sit down and enter it. It’s like he’s depressed, and also the other character that I’m adding—she’s depressed—but in kind of this sustained way in which middle class Americans who don’t necessarily have a clear drive, you know they graduate these good schools and they expect to get a good job but they don’t really want that, so that’s kind of what that focuses on … I guess it’s like striving for the meaning of life but not really; you hear the word sustainability a lot, but what about emotional sustainability within this post-capitalistic society we live in? Because in a lot of ways we’re kind of not really a capitalist society anymore. So that’s what that’s about and that’s why it’s really hard to live in that world—because it’s not enjoyable to be in.

EK: How did We Who Are About to Die—how did that come about? Is that something where you finished The Ancient Book of Hip and you were promoting it … I feel like those were concurrent events.

DL: Part of what it is to be a writer now is to have a brand, and to be able to publicize yourself, and I didn’t know anything really about that until I had to face the reality when I heard my book was coming out. So for the six months leading up to my book coming out, you know I spent a lot of time creating my website and creating this kind of brand around the book and around me as a writer, and kind of researching, and realized—eventually realized—that … I have read HTMLGIANT.com for a long time, before my book even came out, just as kind of an observer of a phenomenon of the literature world interacting with the blog world, and eventually I realized the people on that blog, as a residual effect of being writers on that blog, sell a lot of books compared to most indie lit small press-published authors, and I realized that the most effective way to promote a book or yourself as a writer or a brand is to write into a group blog for literature, which kind of sucks because you’re preaching to the choir, but—

EK: The choir gets bigger.

DL: Yeah, the choir gets bigger.

EK: How are you guys describing the blog these days? People ask you, you know, What is this? Because I’m sure that’s something you still deal with. Because it seems to me that you mix politics in sometimes—

DL: I do, yeah. Well the problem I’m running into now with the blog … and honestly I’m not sure if WWAATD… I think we’ve gone different ways, which is unfortunate, in terms of my editorial interest in the blog… they’re very much more towards one side of things, and I am much more on the other side. Whereas I’m interested in two things in the blog: I’m interested in the idea that you can seriously talk about literature and talk about it in terms of where it’s at and where it’s going, and I’m interested in thinking how can you make money off of literature, how can you bring it back to the mainstream in some way, or just how can you popularize it and focus in on literature of value, as opposed to literature that is not quite as valuable. And where are those curatorial elements in society?

They seem to be deconstructing with the popularization of the small press movement. There’s so many—there’s 270,000 books that come out per year now in America. How are people supposed to read all of those at once, so that’s kind of where I see the purpose of the lit blog. The other purpose, this political thing, is as a writer, if there’s something that’s going on that’s important in the world and I’m paying attention to it, and I think other people are neglecting it, I have a voice—I have a podium—which is this silly little lit blog that not many people read outside of the lit community, but nonetheless it’s my responsibility as a human to write about the Middle East. Unfortunately not everybody on that blog quite agrees with me; in fact I tried to get people to write more into that, and it was a failure, and that’s when I realized that me being an editor of this blog doesn’t really mean anything, which is when I thought you know, maybe I should step down to a contributor level because I don’t want to be responsible for the editorial aesthetic of this publication.

EK: So did that happen recently?

DL: That happened recently, yeah. I haven’t stepped down as an editor [Dan has, since this interview, stepped down]; it doesn’t make sense for me to step down yet because that would just leave WWAATD out in the dark a little bit, so I’m not going to step down until I see it wouldn’t effect the blog too much. Because the other people on that blog are very much falling into what HTMLGIANT has fallen into recently, which is really just becoming more and more insular. Every blog post on HTMLGIANT these days is an inside joke amongst writers, which is fun, you know, and there’s room in the world for that, but that’s not really what I’m interested in. I’m interested in seeing that stuff, but I’m not interested in being part of a blog that’s 99% inside jokes.

EK: Something like a boy’s club.

DL: Yeah, and that to me is what I’ve seen lit blogs heading toward and I’m kind of worried about that.

EK: What else do you read? What other lit blogs?

DL: Lit blogs? I read Harriet a lot, which is the Poetry Foundation’s blog, and the way they curate it is really cool: they invite one writer a month, I think, to blog daily for them, and I’m not sure if they pay them or if they just consider it good publicity for them and leave it at that, but it’s a pretty good blog. I also read The Rumpus occasionally and Bookslut’s blog—both of which are more focused on aggregation than original content, but that’s fine, you know.

EK: How do you make money right now, beyond book sales?

DL: I don’t make any money in my lit career—let’s be straight about that—and the world should know that as a writer we make no money, so buy one of our books instead of buying a beer, at a reading, you know it costs the same price. I make my money by editing video, 9-5 kind of job at a really cool company called Photon Creative, kind of like a post-production facility. I’ve worked there for a few years and it’s a great company, and I do mostly corporate video and occasionally commercial, and occasionally narrative and more artistic projects.

EK: Are you doing anything with film outside of work?

DL: I’ve been collaborating with the visual artist Truong Tran. I had a piece of video that was in one of his pieces [at his show at Mina Dresden Gallery last year], so that’s … a new interesting thing for me is this idea of video art, as opposed to the idea of what I went to film school for, which is mostly narrative film.  But video art is more experimental in a lot of ways, and basically totally freeform, and in a lot of ways it’s a lot more similar to poetry than what I studied in school at NYU which is more straightforward, and maybe I studied experimental films within the straightforward narrative form, but nothing like video art, you know. So it’s an interesting exploration. Like right now, Truong Tran has a show that he kind of was just given at SOMArts—it’s happening in a year actually [in February 12]—and he’s asked me to create this video for him, and it’s just like the most bizarre video ever, and it doesn’t really make a lot of sense to me, but it’s extremely challenging and interesting to approach those challenges. And the video—just to give you an idea—I filmed a fish tank with some black behind the fish tank that I’m going to key out, which—kind of like a green screen I take out the black. And then inside the fish tank I’m going to put two TVs, and in one TV I’m going to play some video on one of the TVs … and I’m going to do this all on the computer, like I’m going to deposit it—

EK: Digitally.

DL: Digitally. And then on the TVs, on one side is going to be these images of war, and on the other TV inside the fish tank is going to be these images of … I’m not sure how much I should be telling you, because I don’t know if Truong wants me to tell [Truong OK’d], but basically there’s this idea of—the show is called “At War,” and it’s a dual show with him and another artist, and he gets one side of the gallery and the other guy gets the other side, and this video is kind of like a look at him as what his identity is, and so the idea of the show is war with your identity. So it’s combating his Vietnamese identity with his identity as an artist and the expectations that come along with being a Vietnamese artist versus his interests as an artist.

EK: I was going to ask, kind of marrying the two threads of politics and art—and obviously you had done that to some extent with the blog and you know I know there’s some of that in The Ancient Book of Hip, a little bit overtly—but I’m wondering if you think that will play more into future writing projects, like in the style that you choose or how direct you want to be about it. Because I shift back and forth in my thoughts about the intersection of politics and art and I for a long time felt very strongly that politics had no place in art at all if possible, and I know that idea itself is kind of insane, but. It’s only recently that I’ve felt like you said earlier: that it’s my responsibility to actually talk about these things.

DL: Yeah, and I would be more specific: it’s my responsibility as a human being to see something that’s unjust and then speak up about it. I don’t necessarily think that it needs to be in your art, but if you have the opportunity to speak to someone, like in the same way that I might bring up Egypt with my friend, it’s my responsibility to bring it up in an intelligent way and discuss it intelligently, if my friend doesn’t seem to even care or even know about something very important that’s happening in the world … I mean I consider what’s happening in the Middle East right now the most important thing in my lifetime. I mean by far. And someone else said to me “There’s 911,” but I don’t think something like 911 even compares to this because this is potential democracy in a region that—basically they’re rewriting political science books right now because of this, and you know.

But going back to the intersection of politics and art I’m not really … I think by definition everyone when they write is being political. And it’s just a matter of what kind of politics you want to invest your self in or whatever. Like when someone writes about … when someone is a poet and they’re writing language poetry, it seems like the least political thing you could be doing ever, right? But in fact it is a very political thing. Language and sound poetry, if you don’t know, it’s a movement that was very popular in the 70s and 80s and a little in the 90s, and it mostly existed inside academia, like the Black Mountain group of poets kind of created it a long time ago, I think in the 50s maybe or the 60s. But it’s very political because what it’s saying is poetry’s place is inside academia, and in that way it’s being extremely political in that it’s giving up its potential audience outside of academia. What that also tends to mean is the people writing it are mostly middle- to upper-class intellectual types who don’t really care about things outside of their world, and that in itself is a very political thing. That’s not being apathetic, that is in fact being elitist. And that’s a relevant point of view, that some work should never leave that circle because to comprehend it requires a lot of specialty. So that is a political thing, and no matter what you do you can’t hide it. So you might as well embrace it and think about what is my responsibility to bring up in my work as a human being in the world.

Yeah my book doesn’t have any politics in it except the politics of a middle-class American, I think. A young middle-class American whose concerns aren’t too worldly—they’re mainly like, I wrote that when I was in college, and actually I wrote that probably a year after college, and so a lot of the issues it’s talking about are What do you do with your life, and I was unemployed at the time I wrote half of that book because I had been fired from my first-ever job after college, because actually the writers’ strike in the film industry ended up getting me fired. Which is interesting because it’s a union thing, you’ve got to support that, but at the same time the people in the Writers Guild of America were making a lot more money than I was, and I lost my job because of it. So those are the political issues it’s discussing in America. The disillusionment and whether it’s abstracted or not, it’s still the politics of that book.

And then the other thing you mentioned is will it change in the future of my writing or something, like me getting more political? I think I’ve always been just as political about it, but I haven’t always necessarily had a blog to complain about it on.

Continue to Part 2.