Stuart Lishan Interview

Here is an “Invocation,” to borrow a coinage of one of Dr. Lishan’s teaching tools, where we would essentially invoke the spirit of the piece; create an introduction (I would usually do this for everything we read in his classes, whether I had to turn it in, or if it was my turn to do so or not).

Stuart Lishan was my first English instructor at OSU,  it was British Literature 201 (a required course for all expected graduates in the studies of English). I was a callow young man, having just transferred from the University of Akron, a know-it-all with a chip on my shoulder and vinegar in my veins; he was an affable man who valued his instruction, had a love for language, and made it a point to always include everyone in his pedagogical process… we didn’t get along.

But that didn’t last long.

During that first class our respect never came to fruition (which was my fault; I never gave him a chance), but as I continued my studies at OSU, I would recollect my 201 class, and marvel at how much I really did take away from it and from him.  I would come back to his readings of Beowulf in Middle English, his passion for John Donne, Milton, and all things poetry, and his ingratiated nature as an instructor, compare that to other classes and instructors I had (and had had, and later had, had, had) and wondered why I harbored ill-will for him in that first class. Than I figured it out: He made me think. And thinking was the last thing I thought I had to do in college.  I wanted it to be easy, and I didn’t want to have to work, which was evident in the fact that I received a C- in that class.

I eventually took another class with him the following year, and went into it with a fresh perspective and an openness I didn’t take with me the first time. It was a fiction writing class. Fiction Writing I (I don’t remember the number). He became my English major adviser, helped me polish and hone my writing, would eventually lend a hand in helping me get into graduate school, and would eventually become a friend.

How long have you been writing? What inspired you to start?

Even as a kid I thought I wanted to be a writer, way back when I was in Mrs. Lavechio’s third grade class, writing a poem about an old ship dying in dry dock, and creating stories about the terrible accidents Felix the Cat would get into while skiing in the alps. But I didn’t get serious about setting out to be a writer (however one did that, I had no idea) until I was in high school, and I had an A.P. English teacher named Mr. Frisius, a fat guy with a capped front tooth who couldn’t keep his shirt tucked in. He read poetry and prose like an angel. Whether it was T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” or short stories by the modern gothic writer, John Collier, he made me feel that there was some sort of magic in those words that I wanted to tap into.

So this was when I was around 15-16-years old, back in the early 1970’s. It was around this time that I found a crumpled L.A. Free Press (the underground, alternative newspaper in L.A. back then) in the trash can at Van Nuys High School. There was a story in there about a chick who invites an old friend whom she hasn’t seen in years to her place b/c he says he has some underground tapes of something secret, either cops doing something fishy or maybe it was a Dylan concert, I don’t remember, but after she feeds him and he fucks her, she finds out that the suitcase he brought over with the secret L.A. tapes was really full of his socks and underwear. I don’t remember the story much, but the ending stuck out, “What he got was a free flop, a free feed, and a free fuck.” It was pretty heady stuff for a nerdy fifteen-year old kid who wore coke-bottle rim glasses. More importantly, though, that L.A. Free Press had an article in it written by Kenneth Rexroth, the “king” of the beats, about a somewhat forgotten poet, Kenneth Patchen. That led me to seek out Patchen’s poems, as well as Rexroth’s, which led me to a book, Six San Francisco Poets, edited by David Meltzer. It has a selection of poems and interviews with the likes of Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Robert Duncan., cats who started to hang out in the bay area in the late 1940’s (Rexroth, their mojo leader of sorts, moved to San Francisco even earlier, in the 1930’s). In those interviews, especially Rexroth’s, a lot of names were dropped – Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Robert Creeley, and on and on and on. I started to check them out, and I was gone. Nothing I’ve written back then has stood the test of time (one poem, I remember, had a refrain, “and I gotta get stoned tonight”), but I was writing.

Not long after that, when I started at Reed College, in the mid 1970’s now, I got turned on to other poets – Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, William Stafford, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, Sandra Macpherson, Lucille Clifton, and Adrienne Rich – all terrific poets, but I still have a special fondness for those poets in that David Meltzer anthology and that old crumpled L.A. Free Press.

How long after you began the submission process were you first published? And where was it published?

Well, publishing in the college literary magazine doesn’t really count, so I would guess about a year or so after I started submitting. I was still in college, and The Portland Review published a poem of mine in 1976. It was about some guys beating the hell out of a walnut tree. It was all told in a sort of gauzy, mythological voice. Looking at the poem now, through the lens of the writer and teacher I’ve become, I can see some promise in that poem, some lyrical promise in particular, but the poem wasn’t that great. But you know, publishing came in stops and starts for a long time after that – long droughts of nothin’ followed by a publication in a literary magazine at last. The droughts aren’t as long now, but it can still be a challenge sometimes.

Since then, and in regards to being published, what do you consider your greatest achievement?

Oh, I don’t know, man. Having my book, Body Tapestries, published was an achievement (it won a prize, the Orphic Prize), but so was getting a short memoir, which was first printed in Brevity, reprinted in Creative Nonfiction, and then reprinted again in a first-year college composition reader, Making Literature Matter. I’ve won some other awards, too, like Ohio Arts Council and California Arts Council Fellowships, but those are relatively modest as far as those things go. If I was more of a smart ass, like some young writers I admire, and quicker on my feet, again like some young writers I admire, I’d say being asked to be interviewed by the up and coming writer, Shawn Young, has been my greatest achievement so far.

Is there a specific genre that you think that expresses you as an artist the best?

A few years ago I would have said poetry, hands down, but now I think fiction and creative nonfiction expresses me as an artist best. At least, I’m able to be funnier in those genres. Maybe that’s where my true voice lies. If I had to narrow it between the two, I’d say fiction, novel writing right now, although I’ve been more successful, publishing wise, in creative nonfiction and poetry, but I feel that’s about to change.

Do you believe that writing has changed since you began as a published writer, if so what are the major differences?
When I started, counter-cultural, underground artists were cranking out their books (literally) on mimeograph machines. Now you have the internet, and blogs, and stuff, and that’s made a huge difference, of course. The e-zine scene is thriving, publishing much of the most daring and energetic writing out there, and the possibilities of a wider audience are always there, of course, because of the world-wide web. . But there’s still a wall, if you will, that you have to climb over if you want to get published by the more established and more prestigious presses. For poetry, it’s the screeners, the cadre of readers who read through the hundreds of submissions and feed a dozen or so “finalists” to the final reader (if you’re writing poetry and submitting it to poetry competitions, this is a practice which you have to engage in if you want to get picked up by an elite press, independent or otherwise). For fiction, it’s an agent. He or she is the gatekeeper now, since hardly any major publishing house publishes work sent “over the transom” that hasn’t been screened and represented by an agent. And if anything, it’s worse now than it was in the past, because of the sheer numbers of manuscripts floating around out there (cheap copying has made it worse in the last couple of decades). It’s awful hard to break through, but you have to believe that good writing will find its way.

How often do you write in a given week? Has there been a time where you lost touch with it or couldn’t find time?

I try to write every day, and in the summers and during the first half of the quarters when I teach I usually I manage to do that, even if it’s a few lines or sentences (just to keep your head in the game, so to speak), but as the quarters go on, there are times when I’m teaching when, yeah, I’m writing, yeah, but not “that” kind of writing, the “real” writing, if you will. Commenting on student stories or responding to e-mails is writing, of course, and you have to work those sentences, but your head isn’t sunk into thinking and feeling your way through your own work. I remember Ursula Le Guin, coming out to Reed College when I was there, telling us young pups to always write something every day, even if it’s a letter (this was way before the e-mail and the internet), just do something to keep up the craft. So, I guess if I accept her definition of writing, yeah, I do write every day.

Do you have a blog? If so, do you think it’s a powerful tool for a young writer? If not, what are your reasons?

I think it’s a great idea to have a blog and a current, kept up Facebook or MySpace page. I don’t, and it’s mainly because I’m old and stodgy and can’t seem to get past the idea that I’d rather spend my precious time away from doing school and other home type stuff actually writing, rather than promoting my writing in a blog or Facebook page. And I say that knowing that I’m doing myself a disservice not doing that, but I’d rather give myself over to the next line or next sentence, raking the words over and setting out to create some more.

Where do you derive most of your inspiration when you write?

Right now I’m in the grips of writing a semi-autobiographical novel that takes place in 1970 about a 15-year old kid named Waldo Prospect, who has a sister who treats him like crap, and bullies who gang up on him at school, but a ghost of a Chinese Buddhist monk explorer who travelled to North America in the 5th Century tells him that he has to go save someone named Aril (and eventually, he’ll find out, his missing father) from an evil magician named Calibane at “1270 Queen Califia Court.” That leads him to eventually go back in time, to 1893, where he meets Arthur Conan Doyle, the future Madame Curie, and James Churchward, the author of various books about a lost civilization named Mu, and then to travel further back in time, to Shakespearean England, when he’ll eventually inspire the bard to create two of his most memorable characters, Caliban and Ariel, in The Tempest, and then further back in time again, this time to the, supposedly, mythological island of California, in 1270, where an Amazon queen named Queen Califia rules.

So, as you can see, some of my inspiration comes from my life as I reconstruct it in the past, some of it as I live life in the present (as you know, Shawn, Waldo Prospect is a road sign on Route 23 just south of Marion), and some of it comes as I read and am inspired by books and other media (Arthur Conan Doyle; Shakespeare; Garci Rodriquez de Montalvo’s 1587 edition of The Adventures of Esplandian, about Queen Califia who rules the island of California;, etc. You use it all as you synthesize it and make it yours. .

With blogs becoming the new diary/journal/political outlet/etc, and sometimes receiving, as much, if not more recognition than printed works, where do you see the future of publishing headed?

Yeah, I’m sure you’re having much more informed conversations about that in your program, Shawn. I suspect e-books will continue to grow and take an ever larger chunk of the book business, but I don’t’ know about blogs. I just don’t get how those blog writers make a living from their blogs. But then, I don’t keep up with my Facebook page, either. Really, you should ask someone else about this, Shawn. I go back to the days when cats hocked their mimeographed books of poems on street corners.

And finally, what advice do you have for a writer in their efforts to become published?

How you get published is to write, and then write some more. You have to have a double sense or second sight; that is, write as if publishing doesn’t matter, but of course a part of you is always conscious at some level of the need to be professional and get published, but if you worry about that too much and try too hard, or too consciously, to write for the marketplace, your writing will suffer (that happened to me on my first, and still unpublished, novel). Don’t do it. Just write what you have to write, and then write some more. And be patient. Let the writing cook and simmer for as long as it has to. You’re in this for the long haul, right? So, don’t get antsy, but do write, man, write.

Here is and excerpt from a piece he is working on which he describes as ” … sort of a memoir… that stretches across a few genres.” 

Spoken Like a True Word: Bianca Mikahn, Eminem, and
a Spoken Word, Hip-Hopped-Up Assay/ Essay… Memoir of Sorts

Well everybody knows that the bird is the word!
A-well-a bird bird
The bird’s the word
— from “Surfin Bird,” by The Trashmen, 1964

“We should look at green again and be startled anew)”
— J.R.R. Tolkien (from “On Fairy-Stories”

— Charles Olson

Form is never more than a revelation of content.
— Denise Levertov

The sense of music in poetry: the music of meaning – emerging, fogging,
contrasting, etc. Tune attunement in understanding – the meaning sounds.
It’s impossible to separate prosody from the structure (the form and content
seen as an interlocking figure) of a given poem.
— Charles Bernstein

Or is it what they meant to mean in the steam of their writing:
Form is never more than an empowerment of content?
At any rate, it’s what I hope to bare in the prayer of these words, because
I’ve been thinking about spoken word and hip-hop, and how the word is a bird
as it leaves your sweet lips on its trip to our ears as we hear you, and fear you,
and dear you, and queer you, depending on how the syllables fly, and it’s sheer
bliss sometimes, man, which is, I guess, as good a definition of poetry as you’re
likely to get in this assay/ essay… from me today: Language as sheer bliss, as words
shear through the commonplace, to kiss you on the lips of your beautiful face
(Yeah, and they always kiss with the tongue, don’t they – It’s how we get our bells rung).

So let’s begin.
Like, take Tolkien: “We should look at green again and be startled anew,”
Meaning, I take it, good Brit. Catholic, hip, Oxford don Hobbit
Man that he was, taking language out of the convent,
that load of abbey that lies in convention,
and, if I can offer some light from the dew glistening
off the wings in flight that is memory,
the lies that got me in detention
in high school, because I didn’t pay enough attention,
because I couldn’t keep to the rules,
sitting in the straight line of desks with the fools,
the conventional uncools, and the mother and father fire truckers,
those teachers hosing me down when I got too uppity, too up-fisted,
when I shop-lifted my mind off the approved curriculum,
going off the directory into unlisted, stick-it-to-em
territory (where, truth be told, we all go, don’t we?),
that glorious place when we invent in the “there, there”
out there, beyond the convent of convention. So screw that detention.
I never paid attention to it, anywho. So, this is the 1970’s
I’m trying to heavenly harken to, and let’s all “pity the fools” that we were then
with Mr. T, with his bling-blinging gold medallions,
and with the original Italian Stallion, let us all shout, as part of the A team,
“Yo, Adrienne!” The name of his Rocky love, which is as good
a name to fame up the muse who visits you and visions you as any other name I know
(and trust me, dear hearts, he or she will grace you if you let him or her,
or whatever gender whim the muse lets you grace him-her-shimmy shim shim with),
but still, “pity the fools” that we were, because we were flopping around,
even when we were muse-tinged back then, because we were without hip-hop back when,
or that other member of its word-stirred flirt of its flesh-and-bone family,
that spoken word poetry.

5 Responses to “Stuart Lishan Interview”

  1. Great interview, Shawn. He sounds like an excellent teacher, and I enjoyed the excerpt from his work.

  2. Thanks, Kathy!

  3. Hey, Shawn,

    I love your intro to this blog post, your reminicence of that first class we had together and then some way back when at OSU. Thanks for the kind words, man. What I remember is that, yeah, you might have had a chip on your shoulder and definitely vinegar in your veins, but I also saw someone who was quite smart and sharp witted and who had a fabulous talent for words, even though the talent was somewhat raw back then. May you alwasys retain some of that chippiness and that vinegar — I know you’re keeping the smarts — and even some of that rawness, for that is what’s going to help let your work retain its edginess and verve. May it always rock and roll. Peace, S

  4. To both of you, thanks for this wonderful interview. I really enjoyed the glimpse into the writer’s work, and the give and take between the mentor and mentee (what a clunk of a word!).

  5. He was a great teacher. I took his poetry classes as OSU Marion. I wish I would have been a better student, but I had some serious anxiety issues that really took control of me. I still think about his classes when I’m writing. I loved the misreads where he would write in the margins what he thought I might have said due to my bad handwriting. Some great ideas were sparked by those. I remember he talked about lightening striking, and how I needed to get disciplined enough to be able to sit down and direct that when I needed it.
    I wish I could go back and study with him again.

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