Robert Andrew Perez on Intention and the Necessity of Being Mindful
An interview with Robert Andrew Perez, from The Write Stuff series:
Robert Andrew Perez lives in Berkeley and is an associate editor & book designer for speCt! in Oakland, where he also curates readings. He is an alum of the Lambda Literary fellowship & a recipient of the Lannan Literary Award for poetry. His poetry has appeared in print & online in publications such as DIAGRAM, The Awl, The Laurel Review & The Cortland Review. His first collection, the field, was published with Omnidawn in their pocket book series. He is currently writing a movie about a divorce and wine tasting; it’s a comedy. More at robertandrewperez.com.
When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?
Usually I say some sort of combination of I’m a writer and I work at a restaurant part-time. I hate how “part-time” is encoded with this tinge of apology or distance. I’m actually quite happy/proud working in the service industry and I think it’s imperative we destigmatize certain types of labor, but it just so happens I do work as a server only part-time, which isn’t unrelated to my writing. I find the part-timeness of it all allows me opportunities to indulge projects related to my artistic pursuits: the act of writing, workshops, readings, running a press, retreats, symposiums, etc.
I also throw in, on occasion, I teach, but currently that would be a lie. I had substituted for a couple years for Oakland Unified and taught English to international students while I got my MFA. I then adjunct-ed a few times during and after I got my MFA, which included teaching college writing and bouts of reading term papers at UC Berkeley. I found the adjunct climate stressful, competitive and ultimately oppressive to my poetry writing. I was always very tired. I’d like to re-enter academia at some point, when there’s an opportunity to teach closer to what I imagine my terms to be. I think I’m a natural in front of the classroom and I discovered that I could lecture on things I love for hours before realizing I was doing work. I’m not always the most organized but there’s something titillating about building a syllabus. The hustle part wasn’t serving me and I earn more dropping pizzas at tables—that’s important for paying rent.
What’s your biggest struggle—work or otherwise?
I think my attention span is a big problem. I’m always fluttering around from social interaction to social interaction, from book to TV show to movie, to project to project, and there be a lot of sex amidst all of that. I’d like to be the type of person with more focus and ritual. It would help me write more consistently, keep a tidier home, honor connections that truly nourish me. Then again, I’m a consumer/bon vivant/dilettante/maximalist/extrovert and I think that shows in my writing for better or for worse. It’s me, it informs my voice. It makes me good at trivia, too.
If someone said I want to do what do you do, what advice would you have for them?
Make peace with being poor… That isn’t to say don’t plan on figuring out a way to make a living. Do that, but know it’s okay if you’re not loaded.
Do you consider yourself successful? Why?
You know, it’s funny, because I was called a careerist recently, and I immediately thought that that was a queer little compliment. Maybe in the same way hipsters secretly like being called hipsters. I don’t actually consider myself to be a careerist, or if I were, I’m a pretty shitty one. Self-promotion is one of those things I might do inadvertently, but if I’m ever aware of it, I abort immediately. It’s icky and weird and poebiz is gross and though I’m an extrovert I turn into this shy mess at readings and literary get-togethers and in the end I think I look like a snob or like I have a stomach ache.
But to answer the question more directly: no not really. In some ways, hell yes. I’ve managed to keep writing. Started a press with friends. I have a book—which is still a little weird to say. I get published semi-regularly. I’d love to win a prize. I’d love my poems to be taught in a class. I guess it’s hard to commit to imagining yourself as successful when there are so many other benchmarks.
When you’re sad/grumpy/pissed off, what YouTube video makes you feel better?
I find Beyonce’s music video for Run the World (Girls) or Get Me Bodied, either the extended remix or the one for Michelle Obama, does the trick.
William’s Boy is a Bottom is a mood elevator, too.
Also this Diva Tag game. I will say it’s hard to enjoy this video when you consider how often the blackness of Dream Girls is erased/co-opted. It sucks being woke.
Do you have a favorite ancestor? What is his/her story?
I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know any of my ancestors, so by default, my grandmother on my mother’s side, Flora Andres. She was a devout Catholic who married for security in a time of war, instead of becoming a nun, opened a sporting goods store, and had a dozen daughters one of whom was my imitable mother.
Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?
I think I admired most my mom (speak of the devil), Lucille Ball and Bill Nye the Science Guy. I’m pretty sure I wanted to be a stand-up comedian/scientist.
Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.
This question has me thinking about Biblical wilderness, Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden, but through the lens of musical theater, of course. There’s this song in Children of Eden by Steven Schwartz sung by Cain to Abel, “Lost in the Wilderness,” and aside from being snuggly in my vocal fach more or less articulates my relationship with authority and religion.
Anyway, I did spend a week in the wilderness recently. For our birthdays, which are only a few days apart, my boyfriend and I backpacked along the Tuolumne River Canyon in the High Sierras. It was a lot of nude selfie taking, breathtaking views, and pooping in holes we dug ourselves. I loved it.
Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.
I have this strange relationship with my body, both dysmorphic hatred and narcissistic adoration. So yeah, even if I don’t think I ought to striptease I would and do striptease.
Oh, I’m really good. I can twerk and isolate and exert a lot of kinesthetic control—in a sexy naturalistic way, not the way trained dancers look awkward. Yes, I’m feeling myself. I like inversions, being on my hands, hyperextensions of the back, body rolls, lots of eye-contact, minimal but significant facials. Hairography.
How much money do you have in your checking account?
Usually enough to pay my half of the rent.
What’s wrong with society today?
Oh the obvious things. Gaps in wealth. Our collective lack of eco-consciousness. White supremacy. Toxic masculinity. Patriarchy. Sexual racism. Gentrification. Monsanto. Militarism. Capitalism. Buffy only having had seven seasons.
Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?
I’ve had an inhaler for as long as I can remember. For my Assmar. That’s a high school English joke.
I’ve been on Propecia/finasteride since I was 23. Before I started taking it, I was positive my hair was thinning, but my friends were always very reassuring that it wasn’t. You’re crazy, Robert. You’re not losing your hair. Then one day I was like, Guys, I really think I’m losing my hair, and it was met with radio silence. That day I knew I needed to get the stuff.
What is your fondest memory?
I can say for certain my fondest memory occurred just last year tripping balls—looping—on the psychedelic/entheogen 2C-B, when I fell in love with my friend a dozen times. My ego dissolved. The universe bloomed (exploded?) from his eyes. My entire life was the set-up to the most beautiful joke whose punch line was love. It was hilarious, and I’ve never laughed so terrifyingly.
We’re still together. Drugs are weird. Sorry, Mom.
How many times do you fall in love each day?
Ha, speaking of which…I would say multiple times. I fall in love with my friends often. My boyfriend most often. Strangers, a relatively high frequency.
What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?
A Michelle Obama presidency. Asian men take over Hollywood without the help of martial arts.
What is art? Is it necessary? Why?
Oh, definitely. It’s hard to answer this question without sounding like a cornball burner hippie or bloated self-indulgent academic or deluded idealist, but I’ll try and I’ll only sort of make sense.
I think I’ll start backwards, because why not. Why is one of those irritatingly unanswerable questions, like why this, why that, why existence, why are we here. So why is it necessary? There’s a part of me, a big part that subscribes to a lot of pop-neuroscience, so I can’t help but consider the way our brains are just wired for art. We’re wired to see, hear and interpret. We’re wired to see connections, hear connections, make connections and allow those connections to affect our mood and our feelings. Art isn’t an answer to why but a way of answering why. I think it is very en vogue to write art off as frivolous. I also think it is very en vogue to laud art as a way of solving societal plagues. A lot of art is insular or inaccessible or cryptic or elite or niche. But that’s like Art with a capital A. Spaces carved out for that sort of concerted consideration of culture.
The way I see it, we’re always approaching life as art. We interact with it, wrestle with it, it moves us, we change it, we imitate it. Sex is art, work is art, design is art, cooking is art, writing is art. So naming things Art with the capital A is an exercise in mindfulness. I think this mindfulness is what is necessary.
Life is just more enriching with art. Jesus, let’s react to things.
Being a poet and having gone to an MFA and just by virtue of living in the Bay Area and trying to live the life of a writer and also being gay, you find yourself in art museums and galleries a lot. I also love a good museum selfie. You are in these carved out spaces specifically for Art with a capital A. So in that sense, much like how consuming culture and media is influenced by the trauma of having an English degree and being a poet, my worldview is also shaped by interacting with capital A Art.
I had an enlightening email exchange with Kevin Killian around his photography project “Tagged,” where he photographs writers and artists (often male) in various poses around a drawing by Ray Pettibone of male genitalia. It gestures toward a story about possession and discovery but also interrogates our relationship toward shame and desire, for ourselves and from ourselves. In the email exchange, we talked a lot about gestural skill—and that was my big take away. Kevin was very candid about not being a trained photographer—although I think he’s great at it—but he was more interested in the intent behind the shooting. Which I guess has its roots in abstract painting, but perhaps my point is art is also intentional.
The Dark Noise Collective published a statement (can I call it a manifesto) recently that rejected the notion of “art for art’s sake” stating “all art is political.” I don’t disagree.
This also has me thinking about the Dada manifesto(s) where “DADA DOES NOT MEAN ANYTHING.” I like how art and its movements can rub up against itself and simultaneously an iteration of itself. I also think people should write more manifestos.
I think I can ramble about this for days.
When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?
My boyfriend and I laugh a lot. I think it’s great. Sex is silly. We’re putting things in each other and fluid is involved and unintentional sounds from the body. If you aren’t laughing at least sometimes, you’re activating too much of that part of your brain that disavows reality and the present moment. How open and unbridled can your orgasm really be if you’re busy repressing those parts of your psyche?
I also like choking, flip-fucking, getting my hair pulled, rimming, armpits, dirty talk and taking photos and videos. Please don’t hack me.
What are you working on right now?
This book coming out in October features some poems from two manuscripts I’m ready to break apart, to let go of. Those two manuscripts were somewhat projects, though not centered, shaped around/by break-ups. In a way, the book with Omnidawn is principled around a new love with vestigial poems from those two manuscripts. I guess the natural progression—moving from break-up(s) to new love—would be to move into a body of work engaging being in a relationship.
(However, all of these framings are false. It sounds like I only write about the men I’m with. My books, published or not, are always about more than that. The brown queer body navigating geography and culture, participating in and observing and reinventing it. Creating fictions from truth and vice versa.)
I have a stack of poems I’ve written in the past year that deal with loving and caring for someone who lives with and manages severe clinical depression. The real art is in honoring this unintentional project without melodrama and/or exploitation. These poems are very vital to me. To talk about cathartic writing, it’s always very momentary, personal and self-absorbed. I’m trying to write beyond catharsis. This writing is instructive and perceptive. It helps me think, and it allows me to deepen my love for my partner and entangle my poetry with my personal life in an authentic way. I think I mentioned naming/mindfulness earlier, so this is an extension of that. Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy or Sharon Olds’s The Father are fairly oblique touchstones for the direction this stack might go.
When I first started writing about dealing with him having depression and my role/non-role in it as a romantic partner, a lot of the language came to me as prose. Now the language is turning into something I categorize as not entirely prose, and that’s exciting. That’s always a little more exciting to me. Writing is always survival to me.
I’m also in the throes of revising a screenplay about a gay divorce in wine country. I’m very happy with the script so far. It’s cool to participate in a genre of film dominated by heterosexual romances. We explore the same banal themes of how people fall out of love, frictions and incongruences of ambition and temperament, the difficulty of disentanglement. But I also feel like we explore novel areas of the genre like differences in race, open marriages, sexual competition that occurs between gay men, etc. This is all to say that I hope the film is also very funny.
My writing partner and I just finished our first round of rewrites—taking turns revising the scenes the other wrote—and sent out this second draft to a small batch of readers. After that we’ll incorporate some of the feedback and then do a table read with two more rewrites. My writing partner is much regimented about this whole ordeal, and that’s been a relief; to work with someone with a very strict and clean process. I’m not like that usually. I’ve also never written something with someone else. It’s great to see that it’s working and hasn’t destroyed our friendship.
We’re in the middle of applying to grants and fundraising for the movie, too, and that sucks.
What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?
Good journalism is hard to come by.
I don’t think I’m capable of doing what Andrew Solomon or Edmund White can do; wrangle their encyclopedic research into beautiful prolific works.
James Baldwin. Those who continue his work of weaving personal narrative into all other works of genre like Maggie Nelson and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
I think there’s a real renaissance going on with black and brown writers—as if we weren’t always here being lit, as in fire and literary. It’s great to feel like the community of writers of which I am kin are being seen in a concerted way by the literary community at large. There is that elephant in the room—tokenism—but I try not to concern myself with that too much. I think it’s important to get our work out there and read and canonized. I’m an optimist in that I feel like those icky details will sort themselves out. Writers like Danez Smith and Ocean Voung come to mind in calling out tokenism and not taking their well-earned success for granted, and I just have to put my praise hands up when I hear about that. That is all to say that I kind of wish I knew how to engage my racialized identity in my poetry in a less veiled manner. I feel like the I in my poems is always navigating these white spaces and liminalities, but I can never be overt in the way I want to be about race without resorting to the jargon of academic discourse or, worse, platitude. I admire the writers out there right now that really know how to engage race artfully through their poetry.
If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?
I think a new minimum wage would be a nice start. Like a minimum wage that takes into account being able to afford a one-bedroom and working a mere 40 hours a week. Would everything else fall into place?
A night on the town: what does that mean to you?
It’s not the Castro. I would love to take mushrooms at sunset, walk the hills and quieter streets of Oakland, then end up in a backyard to share a big bottle of wine with friends during the comedown.
Not not Steamworks.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?
I once saw someone pare grapes with the foil cutter of a corkscrew wine bottle opener and then put the pieces of grape in cold store-bought lentil soup. Why?
What can you do with 50 words? 50 dollars?
Oh, figuring out what to do with 50 words is a lifelong project isn’t it? Also 50 dollars. I think I would buy coffee and cookies.
What are some of your favorite smells?
Gardenia. It smells like the beard conditioner my boyfriend uses, which I also use on the hair on my head.
I have this Pavlovian response to chlorine. It reminds me of pool parties at my cousins’ house growing up. Also in college, I had this thing with a swimmer, so I think of him, too.
Garlic. A skosh of male armpit stank. Cut grass. New leather. Spilled gasoline.
If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?
A meet and greet with Britney Spears. I spent a summer in college watching almost every single play in the West End. I’d like to do that again. I think I can also plan a killer wedding.
Wow, sexy, intelligent, informative, entertaining, soulful, powerful, passionate. Love it.