Interview with Jeffrey O.G. Ogbar (2011)

Q: If one comes across a vulgar word in a poem, it makes a powerful statement. In hip-hop, vulgarity is used so frequently that it essentially loses its “punch” and can do little but fill space. Would you say that vulgarity helps or hinders the message of hip-hop songs?

Certainly hip-hop has become much more vulgar over time. You can’t deny it. Some people say, “Well you know it’s always been like that, rock and roll got accused of being vulgar and jazz got accused of being vulgar.” But you can scientifically prove that jazz never, and rock and roll never, ever, used profanity the way hip-hop does or extreme conspicuous celebration of death or misogyny like hip-hop does.  I personally am not opposed to people using profanity or anything, but I think…these words only have power because we’ve given them power. They’re vulgar because culturally we’ve determined them to be vulgar. But if you hear it all the time, it diminishes the vulgarity of the word to some degree. When you hear it so often, it sort of seems like a naturally recurring word.

Q: Why do you think white audiences, who you have stated are the major consumers of hip-hop, enjoy the stories of young urban black men? There’s a bad boy style that’s attractive to young people. When they see Snoop singing…they think it’s all fun and games. Some folks embrace the cool style of it.

Q: In your book, you quote Robin D.G. Kelley saying, “…misogyny and stories of sexual conflict are very old examples of the ‘price’ of being baaaad.” So, in other words, in order for rappers to gain a kind of superiority, they have to find someone to make the “inferior.” Is this why they choose women? Some people say that. I don’t think it is that easy. Rappers who celebrate their bad boy style, they really offer an antisocial message that isn’t particularly sensitive to any gender. They talk about killing men all the time. They don’t talk about killing women–they talk about slapping women, or sexually conquering them, and then kicking them to the curve. So it’s expressing a contempt towards women, not a willingness to kill them. There is, however, a willingness to kill men with any infraction, there’s a celebration of killing men. People will say that it’s because they [rappers] are insecure about their manhood so they denigrate women. But, they are actually denigrating people. They are denigrating black people. It’s not about building up their community. It’s about causing suffering.

Q: Do you have a theory for why there is such a focus on de-stabilizing the community?

I think hip-hop’s obsession with celebrating social pathology has partly been connected to the bad boy image that sells in hip-hop. Why their rage has been directed toward the black community has been because they can’t direct it towards the white community. Ice Cube came out with his album Death Certificate in 1991. He has on the cover of DC, a corpse with a red, white, and blue flag over it with a toe tag on a white foot that says Uncle Sam. That’s as subversive as album covers come. When he came out with that album, Billboard magazine did an unprecedented thing—they denounced the album. Guns n’ Roses came out with a song in which Axel Rose said, “I don’t want niggers selling me gold chains.” And that was an exact quote of a white man saying this on an album that went platinum. Billboard never took offense to that. Never took offense to all the songs against women. Dr. Dre came out with a song for the album The Chronic that said, “Officer officer/I can’t wait to see you in your coffin sir.” So the label at Interscope said that is not gonna happen, so he went and deleted it. That same album talked about killing niggers, black people, and talked about b’s and h’s, but killing the officer he had to take off. In the early 1990’s whenever that violence was directed toward the state it became increasingly intolerant. They [rappers] realized “I could be a bad boy and talk about killing niggers and its all fun and games. If I talk about killing cops, then I might be dropped from my label.” So it became commercially lucrative [to rap about these things]. They knew that being a bad boy sold, and being a rebel sold, but you cannot be a rebel against white supremacy.

Q:  Would you say that Green Day’s politically infused American Idiot was successful because of the fact that they are white and a rock band? I would like to think that hip-hop has the potential to be political. For example, the Kanye song “Diamonds are Forever.”  Lil’ Wayne has a song called “Hurricane Bush.” Eminem has an incredibly political song, “Mosh,” that came out in 2004 about the war. Jay-Z has a song in which he said “We’re rebellious, we’re back home, leave Iraq alone…” He was very clear that he was against the war. You have the expression of politics here and there. I think for those platinum artists like Eminem, Lil Wayne and Jay-Z, if they came out with a song like “American Idiot” they could possibly do well, but they just haven’t. But I think they could.

Q: Jay-Z said that words only have meaning that you ascribe to them. But you mentioned in your book that at concerts he would ask his white fans not to say the word nigger. That seems like a big contradiction to me. If you’re saying that you’re going to render it powerless, but then certain people can’t use it, then it has not gotten rid of that power. Your opinion? Well I think Jay-Z and a whole bunch of other people are trying to justify why they use that word and they’ve come up with really weak arguments including that we’ve co-opted it and it’s a term of endearment and it’s no longer a racist word because we use it. That’s absolutely ridiculous. The thing is that Jay-Z and a series of rappers would be incredibly offended if called a nigger by a police officer. They wouldn’t think that the officer is offering them a hug.  They know it’s a term of contempt and of hatred and it is a threat. Jay-Z knows that no matter how many times he uses it, he knows when a cop says, “Get out of the car nigger,” he is offering a hostile expression of contempt for black people in particular. You can’t get around that. Sometimes, it’s affectionate and sometimes it’s a term of hatred and contempt, even when used among black folks. I’m unconvinced. They claim it, but I don’t even think they believe it.

Do you think hip-hop collaborations with artists of other music genres will help to elevate hip-hop’s status?

I’d like to see hip-hop grow and evolve and expand and I think that someone like Drake and someone like Nicki Minaj offer some more of hip-hop’s possible directions. Kid Cudi to a lesser degree. Drake, like Kanye, came out without talking about selling drugs and, unlike Kanye, he doesn’t even talk about killing people. I’m a big fan of Nicki Minaj. I love her creativity, her style. I think she has a strong feminist style. To me, it is a breath of fresh air in hip-hop.

Fave FIVE:

1) Favorite rap artists?

Jay-Z and Kanye West

2) Favorite moment in history?

The 1960’s, because of the audacity of the people. Different types of people…who really pushed for freedoms.

3) Favorite quote or lyric?

“If everyone in the hood had a PhD, I’d say that doctor flipped that burger, hella good for me”– I can’t say that’s my favorite, though.

4) Favorite childhood memory?

Related to hip-hop, it would be seeing the Beastie Boys perform my senior year in high school and being surprised to see Run- D.M.C come out on stage as super guests. My head almost exploded.

5) Favorite collaboration?

(after much deliberation) Blackstar’s “Respiration,” came out in 1998. It has Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Common. It’s hot.

Interview by Lynnette Repollet

Interview with Tom Hubbard (2011)

The University of Connecticut has hosted many writers-in-residence and visiting professors over the years, and the rewards are always great for students within and outside of the English major. These writers enrich the experience of students and give a good example of what a career in writing might look like. Tom Hubbard is one such writer – in fact, he is the writer a program such as this looks for. While Hubbard is currently the Lynn Wood Neag Distinguished Visiting Professor in Scottish Literature at the university, he is a man of many talents, and therefore many roles—not to mention a great deal of notoriety throughout Europe. Though he collaborated on, edited, and authored books beforehand, Hubbard’s first book of poetry, Scottish Faust, was released in 2004, followed quickly by his second, From Soda Fountain to Moonshine Mountain. With his first novel Marie B. recently released in 2008, and another book of poetry soon to follow, Hubbard is clearly a busy man. Thankfully, he still found the time to become a part of the UConn community for the semester, giving students a small share in his life and experiences.

 

Long River Review: Why should people read your book – what will they get out of it?

Tom Hubbard: Well I hope that they’ll get some sense of just what a big expansive thing European culture, world culture is. That it is important to acquire an appreciation of art and music and literature, wherever it comes from. You know there are a lot of allusions to various people in the book – I think people would have a pretty impoverished life if they weren’t exposed to the music of Mozart and Wagner at least once in their lives. It enriches you as a person. So that’s what it’s about – not money because money is ultimately shit. Money is just the means to do something else. Art is its own means to an end. Nothing else really matters except art. Just the accumulation over the centuries of what’s come down to us in terms of art and literature and music – culture in the wider sense, folklore as well, the stories that people in all walks of life used to tell each other by the fire and pass on to their kids and children – that is real wealth. I’m thinking of the English art critic John Ruskin who said that there’s a distinction between wealth and what he called “ilth” – the pursuit of money, exploiting other people so to make yourself rich. And wealth was beauty, was art. So art is true wealth. So that’s why they should read my book.

LRR: I know that there was a shouting match you witnessed and you put that into your book, and you like the writer Robert Louis Stevenson and you put him into your book.

TH: Well those are a lot of people’s experiences. That’s being observant, or being an eavesdropper like Marie B. herself in a scene which she’s listening to Robert Louis Stevenson having a conversation with a Russian lady. I just sneak up and listen to other people and write it down if it’s interesting enough. You have to be nosy. As far as my own experiences like I said I’m not all that interested in myself. I try to keep myself out of my stuff as much as I can. But if I am there I try to disguise myself and hide behind masks all the time and let my character be the most important. Even with my poetry I won’t speak in my own voice – I’ll invent a character or put a mask on and I speak through that.  I have to live with myself all the time so when I write I want to escape from myself! One’s own past or experience can be an ingredient but it’s essentially raw and you misshape it, you mix it up with all the other stuff that comes out – your imagination and all the other parts of your disease.

LRR: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to write and haven’t gotten about to yet?

TH: I would like to write a travel log of my wanderings in Europe and my wanderings in this country as well – do something on a bigger scale. I tend to write short books – Marie B. is quite short, although it took such a long time to write. It’s essentially a distillation. It’s a compression of a lot of stuff; there’s a lot packed into it. Maybe I write short books because I’m basically lazy. I just don’t want to get off my ass and write something that’s very long you know, really epic, as big as the Rocky Mountains. If I can do that in the time that’s left to me…

LRR: Would you be up to that?

TH: I’d be up for walking in the Rocky Mountains or climbing the Rocky Mountains, but that would just be an excuse for not writing about it!

LRR: What in your opinion is the purpose behind poetry? Why bother writing it, reading it, what is its use today?

TH: There’s absolutely no purpose, no use at all. That’s its charm. As Oscar Wilde said all art is useless. It has no function – that’s why we need it so much. When it comes to morals I think a good writer will have an inherent moral up-ness, a set of ethical values. But at the same time you know writers are not sinless, we’re not angels – I don’t think we write for moral up-ness. I think if you did you would just write a load of crap.

LRR: It gets in the way of the writing.

TH: It gets in the way of the writing – I think in a kind of Nietzschean sense art is beyond good and evil. It will contain moral imperatives but it won’t be contained by them. Again to quote Oscar Wilde there’s no such thing as a moral or immoral book – books are well written or badly written and that is all. Well I think there’s quite a bit more to books than that but I can see his essential point – if you’ve got a moral point of view it should be implied, rather than explicitly stated.

LRR: You are living proof that writing is a skill that does go somewhere.

TH: I think there’s still this sense that “Oh you’re a poet, oh you’re a writer,” you know they look at you as a kind of vagabond, a kind of mendicant who’s begging for money. It’s actually true! You are always begging for money! You do sort of wander about all kinds of ways kind of aimlessly. You’re not doing anything useful because art isn’t useful! It exalts us. There’s the German philosopher Schopenhauer who’s a big pessimist, and once said that “Art is the remedy for the malady of existence.”

LRR: Where do you see the place for writing today – the mecca of poetry and literature – do you think there is one place or do you think it spreads over the world?

TH: Oh it’s everywhere. I think any center that’s set itself up as the great center of literature or art or music – we have to be very skeptical of that. We have to be very skeptical of people who use the arts for their own. They are known as the control freaks, the people who claim to be working for the arts but really have an agenda.

LRR: The ilth.

TH: The ilth – those who turn art into a commodity. You turn art into a commodity you turn human beings into a commodity as well. We’re not commodities, we’re not things, we’re living, breathing, we freak out all over the place. And let us continue to freak out gloriously. Marie B. certainly freaked out all over the place – I raise a glass to her.

LRR: What do you suppose Marie B. would think about your novel if she were here today and read it?

TH: Well I’m sure she’d find something to disagree about. If she could see all that in her own heart, in her own self, she’d look at this Scotch guy and think ugh. Well I would hope that I had done her justice and tried to make her accurate because there is still this image of her being a spoiled brat, [someone who] didn’t take anything seriously, but I think what I’ve tried to show is that she did achieve a lot and it’s really a tragedy that she died so young at the age of twenty six, because she could have lived well into the twentieth century and could have been part of all these new movements in art and modern art. A good photographer suggests something going on below the surface, and I think that’s what Marie did – it [her art] looks photographic, and there’s a lot of stuff going on beneath. If reading this encourages people to Google Marie and visit the various websites with reproductions of these paintings, and even better to visit the galleries and see the actual paintings, then I think I will have done her a service.

LRR: And in a way sort of revive her?

TH: Yes, I would hope so. I was talking about the grotesque last night and sort of saw that as being the meeting place of the tragic and the comic. There are two quotations that stick in my mind; one is from the French poet Charles Baudelaire and he said “le beau est toujours bizarre,” – the beautiful is always bizarre. Although in French bizarre doesn’t have quite the same connotations as in English, but he certainly put the bizarre in his own poetry. And the other quote was from a Scottish philosopher who said that great art is always weird. And I like that. I think that weirdness is important in all art – it gives you the edge. And it’s good when art is in conflict with itself. The writer is in conflict with himself.

If Tom Hubbard is any indication, then to be in conflict with one’s self is undoubtedly a beneficial quality.

 

Interview by Colleen Lynch

Beginning the Epic: A Profile of Ellen Litman (2011)

Ellen Litman, author of The Last Chicken in America, shares how she began writing and the creative process behind her first fiction.

You’re reading a chapter from 1984 and suddenly a brilliant idea pops into your head. Should you write it down? So you make your way over to the computer and open up a bright Microsoft document in hopes to begin the next great American novel. You find yourself shuffling through your thoughts trying to pin point a character, a dialogue, or a storyline. You stare for a few minutes into the white abyss, the cursor blinks, and then you give up and submit yourself to the “Big Brother.”  How do you get those creative juices flowing far enough to stain the keys?

If you’re suffering from this writer’s initial block, you are not alone. Many new writers have difficulty putting words to paper, though they have millions of ideas floating around in their minds. In an interview with author and co-director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Connecticut Ellen Litman, she reveals strategies she took to get herself writing, which lead to the publication of her first fictional novel.

THE REAL PASSION Litman’s family immigrated to the United States from Moscow, Russia in 1992 during a period of mass immigration. Her family had been adamant about not leaving the country but with the onset of the Perestroika in about 1985 (which lead to the fall of the Soviet Union) came new anti-Semitic nationalistic parties that convinced the family to leave.

Despite her focus in engineering, Litman’s real passion remained in writing. She wasn’t, however, always able to write. The task of writing itself is a self-discipline one has to master. Litman admits, “[Writing] is hard to do on your own. You get discouraged.” In order to get herself to write, Litman chose to take a writing class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. “A class pushes you to finish,” she says.  “And I began finishing pieces.” As time went on however, she found herself waking up at 5:30 in the morning just to write, since the demands of her unpredictable schedule left no other free time. “You don’t get phone calls at 5 in the morning,” she jokes. Litman reveals that it took her a long time to realize that it was possible to write. She notes that it can be difficult to find places to study and hone one’s talent.

Her first fiction is entitled The Last Chicken in America. Initially, Litman tried writing various stories. She wrote about the neighborhood where her family settled in Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh and stories about Russian immigrants. As a Russian immigrant herself, she was able to draw from real life experiences in her creation of characters and scenarios. She admits “elements of the story” are autobiographical. Mostly, Litman wanted to convey the feeling of the early years of being an immigrant in America.

Should getting published be the main goal behind writing? Litman would say no. She says that although publishing your work is a natural next step and a natural desire, the real motive behind completing your work is equivalent to pursuing an obsession. She explains, “It’s art. You get an idea in your head and you want to make it. You become fascinated and you have to write it. You don’t think, ‘Hmmm, this should be published.’ There’s a need to tell it [the story] and to write it. You become obsessed with it. Just like a painter who has to paint.”

STARTING FROM SCRATCH Litman free-writes. She read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and practiced free-writing exercises from the book in the beginning of her writing process. She uses it even today when she wants to revise a scene or when she’s stuck and ideas just aren’t coming out right. She admits that she loves notebooks and even though she writes on the computer, many times she’ll turn to a notebook because, as she says, “There’s something about the “physicality of [putting] hand to paper that liberates your mind.”

Once she had a draft of the collection and was speaking to agents, she realized that some stories had repeating character or scenario patterns. Consequently, she went through several revisions. Initially in The Last Chicken in America, only about 2 or 3 stories involved the main protagonist. Later she decided to use the main protagonist to link all the stories in the book. It took four to five years to finish this novel mostly because, as Litman modestly admits, this was a period when she was learning how to write creatively.

Luckily for Litman, she never experienced writer’s block. A “permanent lack of time” was the biggest issue during her writing process since other responsibilities would always come up.

INSPIRATION Authors with distinct styles and interests from her own influenced Litman because of their ability to demonstrate what she calls “the possibilities of the language.” She mentions that Denis Johnson’s writing opened her eyes to the freedom and originality that could be achieved in stories. Among other authors that have inspired her are Barry Hannah and George Saunders, whom she says is simultaneously heartbreaking and funny in his writing. She chose to get her M.F.A. at Syracuse University in order to study under his instruction and was lucky enough to do so. She speaks highly of him as a person but emphasizes that he was an excellent professor.

Her advice to young writers struggling to just sit down and write: “Get into a routine. Give it [writing] priority. Set a place where you won’t get interrupted. Tell yourself, ‘I am a writer,’ and build a routine even if it’s just for 15 or 30 minutes [daily]. Make it part of your life. It’s about making the decision and setting aside the time.” For Litman, time is when the baby is asleep or when the babysitter is around to take care of the baby.

She reiterates that taking classes, too, is important because it forces one to finish pieces.  Then, you work until you have a draft. Then you go through several revisions and then you have a finished product… almost.

The one thing that a writer needs to come to terms with is that a piece of work is never ‘finished.’ It can be ready to view, or even ready to publish, but it may never be complete. A writer’s work never ends, just as a thinking person never stops thinking. You will always feel the need to revise and add on. Your first goal as a writer though, is to sit down and write. That is where you begin.

 

Interview by Lynnette Repollet

 

Interview with Joe Welch, Editor-in-Chief of LRR (2011)

LRR:  At what age did you start writing? Why?

Three or four years old, preschool age. There was a marathon on TV with alternating episodes of Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, and the theme was a contest or debate deciding which was best. Apparently this was so inspirational I had to write about it, so I asked my mom for a notepad and a pencil. Well partway through, I realized I didn’t know how to write, and I asked my mom if I should wait until I learn how or try to figure it out myself…I don’t think I figured it out by myself…So, there’s that. But my first actual semi-legit writing was a series of fiction stories in second grade—apocalyptic events would occur, and the recurring villain was the moon (I don’t get it either). In second grade, I started writing poetry; instead of doing any work whatsoever for my English class that entire year, I wrote awful poems and handed them in.

LRR:  Would you say you have a particular poetic style? How would you define it?

I try to write synesthetically, mixing senses with lexical flavor. Most of what I write is dark, emotionally driven, maybe delusional…I have been told I’m of the Dionysian persuasion. Right now I’m touring with the Connecticut Poetry Circuit with four other poets from across the state, all of whom are very different, and I think I tend to get labeled as the crazy one. The term “batshit” has been used.

LRR:  Is there anyone in particular who has helped you to improve your craft?

Oh absolutely; workshops with Penelope Pelizzon, Darcie Dennigan, and Susanne Davis have had grand impacts on my writing. My first big leaps were probably made studying with Jennifer Holley in London during my sophomore year; she took us to write at museums, read at huge open mic events… all very exciting! I also got excellent advice from Connie Voisine and Beth Ann Fennelly via the Aetna Writer-in-Residence program.

LRR:  Do you need a specific mood/ambience in which to write or is it completely spontaneous?

It’s a little bit of both. I come up with a lot of ideas and phrases randomly throughout the day, and I’ll write them down on a notepad to use later. To write a real, full poem, I need to be in a quiet space with wine or tea, almost always at night. The actual act of writing feels very supernatural, like I’m conjuring some version of myself. Actually, the conditions for a séance are pretty much my ideal writing ambience.

LRR:  What do you like to read in your spare time?

I try to keep up with a couple of journals, i.e. Tin House, Poetry, The Paris Review, and The Kenyon Review. I fall behind, though, because I can’t afford subscriptions right now. Starving college student, etc…Which is why I love online publications! Online literary journals like Anderbo are great for that reason, so I’m always looking for that sort of thing. I read a few blogs and absolutely love controversial ones in the literary community—google Darcie Dennigan’s KR blog posts in the series they did on W.S. Merwin, so very good. I just read Shoulder Season by Ange Mlinko (fantastic), and next up is the thrice-recommended Chronic by D.A. Powell.

LRR:  Which piece of your own work is your favorite?

The one I haven’t written yet! I have so many projects in mind…What I’m planning right now, a bizarre book about a dead medium who reaches out to the living, has got me more excited than anything I’ve done.

LRR:  What other favorite activity other than writing occupies your time?

Well, I have three dogs, so I’m a bit of a zookeeper. I also play piano, paint a little, and drink a lot of wine.

LRR:  You also write fiction. The process of writing poetry differs greatly from the creative process behind fiction. What about the fiction creative process appeals to you?

I love the planning stage. The actual writing process is an awful amount of work. As a poet, I pay a lot of attention to individual lines, so I think that makes me a slow fiction writer. Two different worlds, I think. I’ve been planning my first fiction book for about a year now, which I am eager to get started on as soon as I graduate this May.

LRR:  You are currently Editor-in-Chief of Long River Review. How does being a poet yourself influence your role in the selection process for the publication?

Great question. To really know what makes successful poetry and literature, inside and out, I think you’ve got to be a writer. I keep my eye open for things that make me jealous. When my gut reaction is, Damn, I wish I wrote this, that means it’s very good.

LRR:  Do you wish to pursue a career in editing?

I do! It’s a tough industry to get into, but I’m going to try. Now that I’m about to graduate, if a publishing opportunity pops up somewhere, anywhere, I would relocate in a heartbeat. Manhattan, London, San Francisco, you name it. Not sure what’s next, but somewhere on the horizon is an MFA at insert cute university here.

LRR:  What do you hope your involvement in LRR will bring to this issue of the journal? In other words, what do you hope will be your legacy?

Here’s where I get really vain. I want this to be the best issue we’ve ever had, of course. I’ve asked the editors selecting poetry, fiction, and nonfiction to look for exciting, high quality, edgy material. What we’ve come up with is a hot issue. I recently approved the final draft, smoking gorgeous cover and all. There are countless literary journals out there and practically every college in the country has a semblance of one; among all of that, I want LRR to stand out. I want this issue to be remembered.

 

FAVE FIVE

1) If you could pick anyone’s brain, whose would it be?

Edith Bouvier Beale.

2) If you could escape to anywhere in the world and write, where would it be?

A lovely little flat in central London with floor-to-ceiling windows.

3) Favorite poet?

Rainer Maria Rilke and Sylvia Plath can share this title.

4) Favorite word(s)?

I’m going all Donnie Darko on this one: “cellar door.”

5) Most useful piece of feedback you have ever received?

Gosh that’s difficult. What first comes to mind is something Connie Voisine told me about subtext in poetry. She told me to momentarily forget the theme, meaning and context, and look at the words, the sounds—just glancing through a poem, the reader should be able to pick up on a subtext going on. I think everyone should keep that in mind.

 

Interview by Lynnette Repollet