We'll start with the easy question: Tell us a bit about your background...
Well, I was born in Costa Rica and grew up here in Los Angeles. I moved around a lot and attended about 13 schools before finally dropping out in the 12th grade. I began writing when I was about 16 years old. No ambition really, just a valve release and a way to articulate to myself what my thoughts and ideas were. That hasn’t changed much over the years. I just fill up with life, and when it gets to become too much, I write it out.
Are you a native Angeleno? How much of your writing is informed by our city, the idea of living in it (and how Los Angeles also somehow manages to live around and in you).
I’ve lived here almost ten years now, and this city has a way of absorbing into you...I’ve lived in Los Angeles since I was an infant. There really isn’t a way NOT to be affected by this city. Having lived in so many Los Angeles neighborhoods, you get to a point where the city becomes a part of you and that’s no small thing. From Koreatown town to Hollywood, Highland Park to Lincoln Heights. Those places really plant seeds in you and after so many years…you just become those places. Everywhere I go in Los Angeles feels like home to me. I don’t know that my writing could be as loose as it is had I been raised anywhere else. L.A. is just this big gumbo of humanity with bits and pieces from so many different places and cultures that eventually, if you live here long enough, you become this citizen of the world. You know, eating pho soup, or pupusas, listening to anything from Parliament Funkadelic to Santana or Black Sabbath…it’s ALL Los Angeles, at least that’s how I felt growing up here.
Your writing has a very particular style to it that’s hard to give a name. There’s a lot of the everyman quality there, the voice is downtrodden without being put-upon, heartbroken but still somehow strong. I find these whip-quick cuts of humor in your work that just come out of nowhere, breaking the tension before dragging you down again into the darkness.
The thing is, coming of age did not come easy for me. I was a very self-destructive / self-hating kid and I was really headed nowhere fast. If it hadn’t been for books, I really think I’d be dead by now. I’ve come really close to it many times. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never really been suicidal but definitely destructive and careless. By the time I was sixteen I was doing lots of drugs and really just giving up on making this life work, but after I started reading, things began to change. At first, just a lot of Stephen King and HP Lovecraft, Clive Barker..you know…just all this scary stuff. But as I got older, I came across Charles Bukowski and Paul Bowles. I read Kafka, and Herman Hesse…some Hemingway. And I have to say, it changed my life. Those simple sentences really dug into me. I really felt the heart of those people in those books. I felt like maybe I could write my way out of my own life. I always had a sense of humor, I don’t want to give the impression that I was this broody loner, I just didn’t give a fuck and found the whole thing a bit absurd, and when I found out I wasn’t alone in that, it just really opened me up. Gave me a sense of purpose. All of a sudden I felt that my outlook had a path. I never looked back.
Are you familiar at all with the plays of Samuel Beckett? There’s a similar vibe running through your work, this stance of almost… not the weight of the world, but as if the weight of the world finally came crashing down, and there’s the pieces coalescing into something different after the impact. I don’t think bleak is the right word, or even dark, because there’s a weird kind of hope in most of the work. Talk a little bit about your main driving forces in your writing.
You know, I’ve never read Samuel Beckett, though I’ve come across his name many times. Now you’ve got me curious. How does the saying go: "talking about writing is like fucking about painting"? I’m sure that’s it. Writing, for me, started as a kind of vengeance. I needed to yell at everything that had ever ever pissed me off. I felt like if I got it down just right, the world would hear it and either agree with me, or not. After that, it became a way to deal with my FEAR. I’ve always lived with a large amount of fear in my head. Ever since I was young, I’ve been crippled by it. Fear of death, fear of humiliation, fear of pain, fear of loss. Always with me everywhere I went, no matter what I did. I was obsessed with finding a way out of it. Writing seemed like a good way to address it. I won’t say that’s rid me of all my fears, but it really has helped me understand where they come from and why they’ve played such a huge role in my life. It was through writing that I learned how all my rage stemmed from fear.
You have a collection of poems (No One) released through the Black Boot – tell us about that.
Well, like almost everything I’ve done, chance had a really big role in that happening. I became friends with Ryan Wilson (publisher for The Black Boot) years ago when he first moved to Los Angeles. We talked about the arts and hit it off right away. At first it was cinema and music, then on to literature and just everything and though we didn’t both love the same things, we seemed to love with a similar amount of passion which was great because I don’t run across too many people that do. Cut to 9 or 10 years later and well, Ryan is running The Black Boot with our friend Ethan, and one day he just asked how I felt about putting out a book of poems. I told him I felt okay about it but didn’t really have the time to go through hundreds of poems to get it together. I basically tried to worm out of it because the whole idea just made me nervous, but he offered to help split the stack with me, and that’s how it got done. Now that it’s here, I really love it and am really glad Ryan pushed me to do it.
Are the pieces you’ve submitted this month scenes from your life, or an abstract of experiences you’ve had with drugs?
All scenes from my life. The way I see it: if it seems too fucked up to write about and share and admit it’s true, that’s what I’m going to do. I mean, have you read JUNKY by William Burroughs? That book had a profound effect on me. It really opened me up to the idea that being honest is really the only way to go. If you don’t dig deep into yourself as an artist, then your art will be shit. I tend to write about experiences that I believed changed me as a person. Also I think it’s important to get the real story out. So many people are out there suffering and hating themselves because they think they’re more depraved than anyone they know and it’s simply not true. If you’re a person, chances are, there’s some fucked up shit inside you. I say get it out before it festers. Some of my poems are based on nightmares and/or hallucinations I’ve had under the influence of various substances. I write them out so I can get past them. Otherwise, I just limp along, totally burdened by the weight of my experiences. I don’t think that’s any way to live, so I just….push it out and try to keep my insides clean.
Do you think all stories are merely variations on themes of love/lust/sex/death/dependency? I’ve always felt like any worthwhile story has those elements on some level, driving things forward.
Not only all stories, but all LIVES. I mean, that’s all we get. We pretend there’s more going on…morals or chakras or whatever the hell, in the end we’re all just meat. There’s only so much you can experience as meat.
Have you ever written longer prose pieces and/or novel-length works? If so, are they similar in theme to your short pieces and poetry? If not, what is it about poetry that attracts you to the medium?
Everything I write is short. Always has been. It’s all I have to give. My mind races and makes me nervous, so I drink, get high, and make art. Nothing lasts or works for long. So I’m always off to the next thing. The magic of poetry is, if you really concentrate, you can get something really heavy down in just a few short words. I’m really attracted to that. It just seems like the only way you can fight chaos. Too many words leaves too much room for bullshit and ego to get in there and taint the initial idea. With a good poem, you can nail an entire lifetime down in just a few, clean lines. I love that. I don’t have a lot of patience so the poem just works for me. When I first started, I would obsess over how to get something across with less and less words. I was afraid of letting too many in. Like this answer, for example: already too many words, and now….I’m afraid.
You’re a musician as well – what instruments do you play, how would you classify your sound? What draws you to music (a further extension of poetry, or a different kind of artistic pull)? The pieces of yours I’ve listened to seem to have a completely different (yet complimentary) voice to the poems I’ve read/heard from you.
Music, yes well, I play the guitar mostly but I do have a bass and synthesizer. Music has always been a sanctuary for me, for as long as I can remember. It occurred to me very early on that music was a form of expression that could never deceive you. Unlike some of the other arts that could have, you know, layers of meanings, some of them hidden. With music, there’s no bullshit. You hear what was meant. Nothing else. A tone, a series of notes, you can never be fooled by that. Scary music sounds scary, sad music sounds sad and the connection is direct. It’s pulled me out of some dark places more than once and for me, it’s always seemed like a kind of spiritual slang. It’s how we interact, and talk shit with the infinite. When I can’t write, when whatever it is that’s slithering around in my head can’t be pinned down with words, music always works. Whenever I find that my writing is starting to smell like bullshit, I just pick up my guitar…..
Your poems help you give a voice to your community, or at least share your perception of the things that happen in your community. Have you seen that your work has had an effect on the community around you, or in the lives of certain people? I, for one, was moved at the heaviness of it all, how one of your poems kind of threw me right back into my college days and made me realize I wasn’t the only one feeling those feelings of loneliness and emptiness.
Well, there have been times, after a reading when people have come up to talk to me about something I read. And it’s always the real dark stuff, incest, addiction, abuse. It’s not easy for me to share that kind of stuff with people, but I’m always pulled to write about it so I figure: if I’m writing it, I should be sharing it. I’m always amazed by how many people have had similar experiences. I always felt that you really have to confront your demons if you ever hope to wrestle them down. Denial never works. Ever. I once had this lady, she must have been about seventy years old, she just came up and gave me a hug and whispered: thanks for being so brave. I just started crying, I couldn’t help it. It was just this feeling, that I’m not alone anymore. That I made the right choice you know? Writing about molestation or schizophrenia or drug addiction, it’s just, people get upset about that kind of thing. I always think, this is me, this is what I have to do, but I know it’s not popular. But for every 20-30 people that I piss off there’s always one…sitting in the back, staring me down. That’s the one that comes up after, and thanks me for doing it.
And since I’m writing these last questions on Father’s Day – Does having children affect your poetry (or when they were born, did it change?) Do you hope to be able to share your poems with your kids, the meaning behind them (if you don’t already?)
Having kids, it’s just really shocking you know? At your very foundations. For me, it was like I really had to define myself and be sure that I was being honest and staying true to what I thought was right. It made it impossible for me to get away with fluff. I remember when I was younger, and so eager to be cool and contemporary. You know, you read the beats and think: man…I have to find that loose, fluid cool. But after having a kid, I just felt like I couldn’t live with myself if he got older and read something I wrote that didn’t ring true. It all just had to be real. And not the selective real, but ALL of it, you know? I feel like I have a responsibility to do that. Even before my son was born, I helped to raise my two step-kids and they really taught me a lot about life. They went through some heavy shit and I really didn’t know what to do half the time, but I was there and in the long run, that mattered. These were real lives that I was dealing with, kids growing into these adulthoods and, I just felt like I had to remain as honest as I could, in everything I did, and writing, sure it was affected by that. Kids have a way of seeing through your shit and calling you on it with their eyes. I always felt like I had to be able to look them in the eye and just have them KNOW that I wasn’t this fake ass person.So as far as poems go, I don’t feel the need to share them with my kids because my poems are just extensions of my life and I already share that openly with them.
Dennis Cruz is a vital Los Angeles poet and artist. His signature live reading style has placed an indelible stamp on the poetry and lives of the thousands of people that have seen him give voice to his work. To say Dennis Cruz is a live poet is to only insinuate a fraction of the meaning of the word. He is a practitioner of the experience, the improvisational, the essence of poem as a means to understanding self, pain, loss, and transcendence. Born in Costa Rica and brought to the United States as a young boy, he inhabits the voice of the perpetual outsider and the purely American dissident. He lives in Northeast Los Angeles with his family.