D.W. Lichtenberg: politics, the small press movement, SF lit scene

(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 two of a two part interview conducted in conjunction with a profile for SF Weekly. Read part 1 here.

EK: Having that platform [a literary blog] and using that in some ways might effect the way you think of the book as a platform—

DL: True.

EK: I don’t know how that will play into books down the line, but I feel like we’re really just getting to a point where there have been literary blogs for just long enough to maybe start effecting the way that books are, you know?

DL: True. And especially the small press movement. And do I think that by being political within those realms that I will potentially refocus the small press world into something more relevant to the rest of the world? That is my hope—is that eventually small presses realize that in order to be relevant, in order to be important in any way you can’t just preach to the choir, you can’t just print runs of 500 books per year and that’s your only aspiration. Because the real issue with that is no one’s going to read those books—unless you consider yourself a community-driven kind of thing and everyone in that community is interested in that, but—

EK: It seems like you’re feeding a small community but in order to get beyond that community you really need to raise the stakes some.

DL: Yeah you really need to be relevant. And whatever relevancy means is open to interpretation, but you need to be relevant outside the sphere of the small press world, which is mostly academic or residuals of academic communities. But in terms of my novel, I’m exploring a lot of issues around … the thing I found very interesting in American society over the past few years is the refocusing on these green movements as opposed to human rights. So I think it’s become very mainstream to be interested in green causes as opposed to human rights causes, so the idea that I’m going to spend more of my energy making sure that we live in a sustainable world than I am to make sure that people in the Middle East don’t get killed for being raped, you know, like has happened in Iran and elsewhere, or being gay. And you know the World Cup is—have you heard about this? Qatar is hosting the next World Cup and they issued a public statement: ‘Please, if you are gay, refrain from being gay during the time you are in our country.’

EK: Is it worded that ridiculously?

DL: Pretty much, yeah. Like it’s acknowledging the fact that homosexuality is a real thing, but it’s asking you Please refrain. So it’s interesting that our culture, America has become more focused on sustainable living than it has on things like human rights in other countries, which is an inward focus.

EK: When was that announcement made? I mean are people going to boycott this?

DL: I think it was made like a month ago, or something. And there hasn’t been a lot of reaction to it.

EK: Wow.

DL: Because maybe the demographic of soccer is kind of like the demographic of most sports, which is a manly kind of thing, you know.

EK: Still that seems like—

DL: It’s outrageous.

EK: One of the more outrageous things I’ve ever heard.

DL: It’s outrageous. And as a writer what do you do with that? I put it on my little Twitter feed, but that’s about it. Right? But so actually my book in a lot of senses in that it addresses that tension, the idea of—it explores why America as a culture has turned inward in their political interests. And a lot of it, what I’m speculating, is a middle-classes privileged person who is highly educated, perhaps overly educated, who lives in a world that they never had to think about the plate of food coming to them each night from their parents. And, since they got into a nice school, and got a nice little job after … maybe it wasn’t even that good of a job, but they still made plenty of money to put food on the table and have freedom, and so when they don’t have immediate concerns in kind of a biological way and kind of a human rights way, what do they focus on? They focus inward—just like everybody else focuses inwards, for the most part—and they think about becoming a vegan, which helps the environment and keeps you healthy. They think about doing yoga; yoga is very popular these days. And these things sound very incidental, but I think they are innately political.

EK: Yeah.

DL: I know that Google is heading this project of turning their office buildings into sustainable buildings, kind of like these organisms that sustain themselves and rejuvenate themselves and that’s something really interesting but it is definitely … the idea is that if they do that, everyone else will see that and it will become the new vogue thing, or it’s like everyone wants to build the highest building, but now everyone wants to have the most sustainable building. Which is really cool—

EK: It’s important.

DL: It’s very important.

EK: I mean if we could actually build buildings that sustained themselves that would really help us out down the line.

DL: Right. It’s really cool, and it’s great, but. I wonder why the majority of focus in American life is around that as opposed to around human rights in places where human rights don’t exist, and let’s face it: even in America, not everyone is equal.

EK: Far from it, right?

DL: Yeah. And so I guess part of this book is exploring why our culture is moving in that way. My thesis is kind of this idea that without a threatening political thing, if I grew up white, middle-class pretty—I consider myself very privileged, even though I wasn’t raised with a lot of money, but just the fact that I never had to look for a meal in my life. Ever. You know? And so I consider myself very privileged, and because of that I think our political interests change.

EK: Yeah. What—does the book have a title?

DL: For a while I was calling it “Time Flies in Ways.” There’s an excerpt of it on Apostrophe Cast where I recorded myself doing it, I don’t know if you heard it—

EK: I think I did.

DL: That’s the chapter where the title is extracted from, but I think I might change it to this other title that I want to purpose into it, which is “Nobody Never Ever.”

EK: Cool. Is that the excerpt that you read form InsideStoryTime from the same book?

DL: It’s from the same book, but it’s not the same section.

EK: Right.

DL: With the dancer as a character, right?

EK: Mmhm.

DL: Mmhm.

EK: What are you, how are you—I’m interested in how you would go about publishing this book after your first experience.

DL: It’s a hard question, because I don’t necessarily want to just go with a small press, unless a small press can show me—see here’s my real issue with the small press movement: while it’s a great thing in a lot of ways, I think a lot of the times small press publishers publish a book and stop there. And there’s just like Oh wow it’s so great that we published this, we had a book release party, we sold a few hundred copies … that’s great. But that doesn’t show a lot of dedication to the manuscript; they’re so interested in championing and selecting a manuscript that they’re not really interested in the nitty-gritty of promoting a book title, which is really not a glamorous thing in any way.

EK: Really just doing it justice.

DL: Doing it justice, yeah. So there’s an ethical decision to be made by a publisher: Am I publishing this for my ego and because I want to be a publisher and publish books of quality, or Am I publishing this because I think I have the ability to publicize this book and make sure that it ends up in the hands of people who will enjoy it. So that’s my dilemma; if I could find the right small publisher I probably would publish it with them and they could show me dedication to promoting it, but I kind of—I’m a cynic by nature, so—

EK: I hadn’t noticed.

DL: Yeah [laughs]. So I’m always, yeah—one thing you’ll notice about me is I’m always the ultimate devil’s advocate. I will always think about both sides of the equation, and whenever someone only presents one side I will always try to bring out the other side, whether I agree with it or not. There are definitely two—the small press is a double-edged sword. And so is big press, because do I really want to spend time getting an agent? Is my book even marketable? Probably not. It has a narrative thread that is small, but it ultimately it is literary fiction, which isn’t that sellable. And maybe I don’t want to even sell my book to people who will buy it in Barnes & Noble, I don’t know yet. But I do want to publish it with a press that wants to publicize my book. So where is that medium? Maybe some place like McSweeney’s is, you know. McSweeney’s is a good model for the future of small press, and I have no idea how I’m going to go about getting it published.

EK: How close are you would you say to having it as a package? To present to someone. Like say you wanted them to publish it.

DL: I could show them the package right now. Now, eventually I do want to find an editor who can help me with a second draft. I mean I’m willing to do the second draft on my own, which I am doing, but maybe it’s the third draft for the editor, but I do want someone else involved in the process because I do not think that my singular vision without any criticism from the outside world is relevant. I think to be relevant you have to have—that’s my opinion, it’s a very particular opinion and I’m not saying it’s a universal thing, but for my own work to be relevant I need an outside perspective.

EK: Amen.

… I think that’s plenty.

DL: Do you want me to talk about the SF Lit scene, since this is for the SF Weekly?

EK: Sure. Of course.

DL: Is there anything in particular?

EK: I don’t know, I mean I’m in this weird situation now where every time I find out about a new series or something it just makes me nauseous, you know, it makes me go Why. I’m just like Why do we need another series. You know? When I started doing all the stuff in what, October of 09 it was like in the next year I went from knowing nothing to being just totally overwhelmed by it. It’s not stuff that I necessarily found—like somehow I wasn’t overwhelmed when I dove in and found all this stuff, but over the ensuing year when all this other stuff started happening it was just like You guys are creating things and you don’t even know what’s going on. You know what I mean?

DL: Yeah, without context. Yeah it’s important to have context when you take a role in the community. You can’t just jump into the community and claim authorship without a context. And what you’re essentially saying is that you’ve become slightly cynical, and … which is, you know, it’s a good thing.

EK: It’s definitely a good thing.

DL: Because in this city we do not necessarily need more and more reading series, unless that generates competition, and unless that leads to the weeding out and the constant innovation within the scene, right, in terms of capitalism. Competition is supposed to lead to innovation. Instead in this community it has just lead to the dilution of the lit scene in a lot of ways. There’s so many events going on you can’t possibly attend them all, and how do you know which ones are good? We need curatorial tools to focus us on what the best reading series are, right, and the reading series need to get better and better. Otherwise—

EK: Why are they sticking around?

DL: Why are they sticking around when there are so many other ones.

EK: They’re not making money.

DL: They’re not making money.

EK: It’s not easy to do, it takes time to put together every month or every quarter or whatever it is.

DL: And it’s the same thing with the small press world. Why does there need to be so many small presses unless it leads to competition? And because there’s no income involved in this, competition isn’t that meaningful, which means it creates dilution in the scene. Or it could mean the opening for every type of voice including a voice that only appeals to a very small audience, but in general I tend to think that there needs to be more curatorial voices inside the community to direct us: This is the best reading series; this author this week is going to be really good, um, you should check it out. Because otherwise people just don’t have room in their lives. Especially people who aren’t in the scene, and that’s—isn’t that the purpose, you try to get people who aren’t in the scene, who aren’t writers, to pay attention?

EK: Sure. I think that’s definitely one of the points, the reasons to it. And that’s one of the things that I like about Literary Death Match, which is otherwise my least favorite series, you know. I’ve pretty much always hated it, you know. I went to it and I was like What is this, I really—it was really kind of the first spoken word thing I ever went to in my life, and I moved here and kind of randomly was like Wow there’s 100 people here … that’s something, and they also don’t look like the bookish type. Which is also something.

DL: Yes, yes.

EK: And people ask me, you know, Are you going to LDM, and when people find out that I don’t really like it they’re like Well why do you go every month? It’s like well because I think that it’s important; it’s representative of something important right now, you know. It’s not a personal thing.

DL: And in a lot of ways it is a good model for the future of literature in the event realm. Now what is their equation? Their equation is number one take the focus off the literature. Or maybe that also means the focus should only be on a small amount of literature because that’s all people can take in at once. 4 readers, 8 minutes apiece.

EK: That’s a good point.

DL: Yeah, so there’s a lot of focus on each of those readers. There’s also a lot of focus on comedy. For the majority of people tend to like comedy better, but also the majority of people like comedy in the event context, and the idea that you have a drink in your hand it’s kind of like a comedy club, um, it’s not the place for extremely serious literature. Unless it’s also funny. Or exciting. Like a murder mystery or whatever. Now the problem with LDM is most of the readers that read I think their literature, their 8 minutes up there, could be better in terms of performance, maybe, but in terms of the actual literature it could be slightly better. But the model of focusing it on the party aspect as opposed to focusing on the literature is a relevant one: it belongs on the scene, and it’s important for literature.

EK: Yeah I’m excited that they’re only doing it every other month here now.

DL: They are?

EK: Yeah they just started that. This past Friday was—they took a month off. You know MG moved to New York and their numbers were dwindling quite drastically every month, just because you know when Elissa left, just they were in transition for so long that the thing was just changing so fast, and you know I don’t know the exact details why they decided to do that. But I think it’s smart, specifically for the reason that you said, you know they don’t have to find 4 readers every month, and this really gives them the opportunity to improve the quality of the readings themselves. Hopefully that happens. I’m definitely interested to see.