CHRIS VANNOY: San Diego Beat Poet Laureate
Chris Vannoy is an American poet, who Wordsmithery were lucky enough to have perform at our night, Roundabout Nights as part of his European tour. Vannoy has been recognized for his writing, winning a San Diego Book Award for best book of poetry one year and coming second another year. He has won many poetry contests and was recently announced as California’s Beat Poet Laureate for 2017-19.
Angel C. Dye got the train to another part of Kent with Chris after that Roundabout Night, and this interview consists of their subsequent email conversations.
Hello Chris. It was good seeing you perform at Poco Loco in Medway. Please tell us how you came to be a writer and performer.
Chris Vannoy: “My first venture into creative writing was in 6th grade summer school creative writing class. From 7th to 10th grade I attended San Diego J. Theatre. I performed in many plays and was part of a puppetry/performance group. Genevieve Engman, the instructor, made me part of the play writing process. We wrote and produced The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan and Don Quixote. While in the performance group we performed two poems in a chorus of voices: ‘Chicago’ by Carl Sandberg and ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carol. In 11th grade I fell in love, wrote three hundred bad poems and one good one! I still have the bad poems! That is how I became a writer. My poetry in five words? Witty, probing, futuristic, empathic, sexual. Myself in five words? Shy, introverted, observant, diligent, persevering. Poetry has changed me. Poetry has made me what I am. It has also filled my life with much joy and satisfaction. Without poetry? I would be lost. Lost… without words.”
Do you have any rituals around writing?
Chris Vannoy: “Not quite a ritual. It does seem like the poems I like the best emerge when I am walking. I did a lot of walking in England. I am still sifting through material. As far as the process goes, I scribble in a notebook, then decode scribbles into a congruent form, then type it up, only a little edit, print, give it a test spin at a reading. Do my poems work better on the page or performed?
… That depends on the poem. Most of my first book, A Strange Summer was written to be performed. Performance is what I prefer. I am currently working with a troupe of dancers to produce a piece of poetry and dance this October.”
That sounds intriguing. I hope to see photos or film of this! Which poet, dead or alive, inspires you?
Chris Vannoy: “Where do I start? Definitely Shakespeare, Sandberg, and Poe to start with, then Sharon Olds, Ginsberg and his merry men (a group that I have explored more than any other group of poets), Eliot, ee cummings, Joy Harjo and Plath. I always look for a poem that moves me. TS Eliot said, ‘If we are moved by a poem then it has meant something, perhaps something special to us. If we are not moved then it, as poetry, is meaningless.’
I like poets that tell stories. Many of my own poems are story poems. Shakespeare wins, hands down. Ginsberg would be close behind. What is my favourite poem written by another? ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carol.
Of my own? ‘Life’s Not Easy on The Streets’. It is the poem most people can feel deep inside of themselves. I have taken loud, noisy bars from full volume to being able to hear a pin drop with this poem. Yes, perhaps I do write about the things people usually hide from in life, and the human condition.”
Your collection The Rest Of It seems to be summed up in these lines, ‘they formed a loose stitched seam across / the land /closing the wound. / She walks now / by the muddy Colorado / her spool of red thread, / one end tied to a Juniper, / trails for miles behind her / stitching together / that which was lost. /’
You say ‘Fears upon the walls did cling with fragments of forgotten love and other broken things.’ As in your ‘Ode to a Convenience Store’, I see elements of everything but what is important to you as a writer: truth, authenticity, form, structure, rhyme, story, image etc?
“As a Beat poet, poems are the oral representation of our world culture. Truth and Story. Not necessarily in that order. My form and structure are usually pretty loose. My writing is usually free verse with an occasional rhyme thrown in. You have to make sure the cadence of the poem is right. My vision for my writing future is to perform it. I have always encouraged my fellow poets to not just read their poetry but to express themselves through it. Each poem has a voice and a tempo it should be read at. Some poems are meant for the page and some are meant to be read.
I have strived to promote poetry across all platforms. I have worked with artists, dancers, and actors in an effort to include as many disciplines as possible. The advice I would you give to aspiring poets? Go to as many open mics and read your poems out loud. Learn what you like and don’t like. Find a mentor, someone whose poetry you like and respect. Find a poet published poet you like and read all they have written. Read their biography and read the poems of their contemporaries.
Listen to other poets when you are at the open mic. Hear how they deliver their work, feel the rhythm and the cadence of their words. Challenge yourself to try new things with each poem, project or performance. I challenge myself to write what I haven’t written about before. As long as the words convey the images I want to create with the poem then I have been successful. I am usually trying to best my previous favourite poem. The projects that I have worked on include performance groups and collaborations with artists, dance troupes, and actors. When the lights go up it’s time to have fun!
Performance is where I am most alive. I try to make it a roller coaster of words and images.What does being Laureate mean to me? Being Poet Laureate is the fulfilment of my life and affirmation of my life’s work.”
I love the lines; ‘It’s social conscience that I do crave / To document and so to save / Enough has been written of twinkling stars / but not too much of fights in bars / So I will write what comes to me / But never a poem / about a tree!’ So tell us more about The Rest Of It.
“Never about a tree! My latest collection contains the work I did not include in my first book, A Strange Summer. It includes some of my longer pieces along with a few new poems I had just finished at the time. At the present time, I am working on a collection of poems that I have written since the year 2000 which may be coming out early next year. It will include the pieces I recently wrote in Europe.
I write because when it comes, it won’t let me go on without writing it down. The themes important to me are Sci-Fi, the human condition, the past – but I love living in this time. It is great to write and have someone say the poem has moved them, that it made them see the subject matter from a different angle. The love of one woman forever in my heart and the human condition inspires and motivates me too.
The Rest Of It has more poems that were made to be read on the page. The first book A Strange Summer holds most of my performance pieces. I am putting another manuscript together with the working title All There Is."
We look forward to it… In ‘Harvest’, you say; ‘To keep him warm / Against the chill of winds / That moan with the cry / Of those still tied to the earth / They had waited long for him / To end the ceaseless / Procession of days upon days.’ You obviously have a social conscience. Do you think poems have power to change communities?
“Poems? No. Poets? Yes. The poets themselves should be leading the protest against injustice and inequality. Their poems should be the voice of protest. If my poems were objects or alive? They would be springs, and they would never be still. Poetry is becoming more popular and relevant. I see a youth culture embracing Rap and Hip Hop, a definite plus. While I was in England I attended a reading of a group of college students reading performance poetry from a course they had taken. In my experience with open mics in San Diego, the youth are engaged and eager. The profile of poetry is being raised, I believe it is out there. I hear it in commercials sometimes. Poetry saved me.”
Yes, I read how it saved you in the line ‘It was my drunken target practice / that sucked me into my future’. It does seem an exciting future. You are doing a lot of travel to promote your book. Indeed, I travelled with you on the train back from Roundabout Nights in Medway! Can you tell us about your journeying?
“I completed a lifelong dream to travel to Europe with my poetry. I recently returned from doing five readings in Seattle. Do I write on my travels? Yes. I completed at least five poems and am still working on the rest of the ones I wrote on the trip.
I am retired now. I took many drudge jobs so I would not have to think very hard and could concentrate on poetry and organizing poetry events. What else is in the pipeline? Seattle in August. I am sure to be dropping into a few open mics and seeing some old poet friends too. I will be in Connecticut September 1st-3rd and to be installed as Beat Port Laureate in San Diego. I will be at the international Beat Poetry Festival, October 21st-22nd where I will be reading at the Beat Museum in San Francisco.”
Is the current beat generation observant of its Ginsberg and Kerouac roots or is forging new directions and saying new things?
“I found here, as well as the other countries I visited, the Beats are still read and appreciated. You ask if the parallels or divisions are there between the Beat Movement and say Rap?
Rap has a good beat. The message is beat. It’s spoken to fast for me to understand the words most of the time!
Is my work embraced and understood in different contexts? Yes, in America, across Europe, poems about humanity connect universally. I found one in particular that resounded with diverse audiences. It is my poem depicting homelessness. ‘Life’s Not Easy on The Streets.’
When am I next coming to Britain? I have built some strong bonds with the poetry communities in Kent. I have been very privileged to meet the Thanet Poets too. The love and generosity and comradeship have left me eternally in their debt. I hope to return sometime late next year. You ask, do people need new ways to absorb poetry, you say Barmer and Hume say no one listens to poetry and that it has to be shoved in their faces so they utilise all kind of methods; poems on bank cards, slipped in library books and use social media. But I say poetry is all around us. I see pieces on TV shows and in advertisements. Exposure is the key. When the public stumbles upon a poetry reading, I find, most of the time they are appreciative of the message.”
Yes, I think your poems, ranging from ‘Soft Profits’ to ‘DownTown’ span the spectrum of lives and can comfort or convict and that many can find their voice within them. Thank you for talking with me Chris. Where can we buy your books please and find out more about you?
“The books are available on Amazon (links as above). It has been a pleasure speaking to you, and performing in Kent and I hope to be back soon.”
"This is how the poems are born. This poem will tell you…"
Something marked me with a poet’s scar
Like werewolf bite, half healed
Thoughts dancing in my mind
Cravings, seeking escape
Hands translating, mystic patterns into words
Breathing life as they wake in dark shadows
Blazing like search lights in the fog
Come along with me now as this lunar mood passes
I will show you the woods
Where thoughts grow like mushrooms
That spring from the spores of dreams.”
by Chris Vannoy