The newest edition of Converminsations features L.A. poet/novelist/writer Chiwan Choi.
JIM RULAND: What are you going to be reading on April 5?
CHIWAN CHOI: I'm not quite sure yet. Which I'm sure is a horrible thing for a host of an event to hear. But normally, I'm completely unable to decide until the day before the reading, if that. However, I think I have it narrowed down to a couple of possible things. One would be a section of a novel I've been working on for...ever. My second option is to read a series of horribly raunchy and obscene poems. However, I'm pretty sure that if I finish this new short story, that's what I'll read. It's got all kinds of things in it, like a bathtub, a broken foot, and a knife.
JR: What’s the novel about?
CC: It's called "Dogs of Los Angeles" and it's broken down into five loosely connected sections. The first four chapters take place right toward the end of Summer '01 and the stories revolve around teenagers, dealing with the cold realities of both the streets and the homes. The last section takes place in the present and it focuses on a man in his thirties whose life may be unraveling, but he can't quite tell because he doesn't know what the value of personal tragedy is in a post-9/11, international economic collapse time. So I'm interested in reading a few pages from that...
JR: You work in a number of genres. Do you favor some over others for periods of time or do the ides dictate the form it will eventually take?
CC: My writing life started with poetry. It was when I was still very uncomfortable with and lacking confidence in my limited vocabulary. I was in high school and I'd been made to read the god-awful "The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck and, even though I knew even then that the book was a piece of shit, the experience made me feel like an idiot who didn't know what writing or reading was. Fortunately, as many young people have, I discovered Bukowski and his poems opened up a giant door. Poetry written with words I knew! At this time, when I was 17, I met a teacher named Jack Grapes who really changed my life. He taught me everything I know about writing. I still go back to him, 20 years later, whenever I can to take his classes.
JR: What if someone forced you to choose?
CC: If I had to identify myself as a specific type of writer, I’d say "poet." That's what I've known the most, written the most, and loved the most. But right now, this novel is challenging me in incredible ways so I feel most comfortable with that form.
JR: Are you sure about that?
CC: You know what? Fuck that. I love journal writing the best. It's simple, honest, and I can get to things really quick.
JR: Is it a time-based thing?
CC: As far as how long ideas take to get to page...with poetry (relatively short poetry) I don't think about it. When I start writing a poem, it's the first time the words / thoughts / ideas in it have crossed my mind. The exception is "The Flood," a fucking poem I've been working on for about seven years now and is now up to near 50 pages. Good god. I don't know what the fuck got into me. Should have never started on it...but I did. Now I’ve got to keep at it until I feel it's absolutely finished. With screenplays and plays, I think about a character for a month or two, trying to really live the lives, before I start picturing scenes and events. But in most cases, poetry or prose, I think I am thinking on the page. The page seems to be a good place to figure things out.
JR: Tell me more about your web site Siberia/LA.
CC: The name of my blog used to be "fictionalized memoir about things that never happened." That title came to a few years back when I was living in New York. I was at a fancy party that New York magazine threw and there was this guy there, a very young author named David Amsden, who is an editor / contributor at the magazine and had a big crowd of people around him. Anyway, he was the Star because he had published his novel, "Important Things That Don't Matter," when he was like 22 or something. You know, he's one of those guys that on the back cover, some reviewer has designated him "the voice of his generation." So I'm standing there with my friend who also works at the magazine and she was all sad and jealous because Mr. Amsden was young and already famous. And to make her feel better, I said, "Forget about his stupid book. What kind of title is that anyway? I got a better one. Fictionalized Memoir About Things That Never Happened, a Novel." So that was my original title for the blog.
JR: That’s a very funny story that has absolutely nothing to do with Siberia…
CC: Yeah, I know. I recently changed it to Siberia because of 3 things: 1) when my wife first moved to LA, we were sitting one night at Mani's Bakery on Fairfax and she said, "Damn, this is the coldest city in the world!" 2) I have a friend, like a little brother, who is obsessed with visiting Russia and getting as close to Siberia as possible. 3) This city is so impossible to survive sometimes. It is a hard hard place. You can't imagine how easy I found New York to be after having survived childhood, teen years, adult life in Los Angeles.
JR: That’s funny, I feel the same way about San Diego. It was true 20 years ago when I was a sailor and it’s true now. Not that it’s any of my business, but are you done with New York or are back in L.A. for good?
CC: I THOUGHT I was done with New York...but my wife and I have been recently talking about moving back in 5 years or so. We've started planning our escape from Los Angeles again. I'm sort of burnt out on this city, as much as I love it. Don't get me wrong. I think there is a FAR greater writing community in Los Angeles right now than in New York. But I'm tired of having a car. I'm tired of having no parks. I'm tired of the cops who do nothing but give out jaywalking tickets in downtown. And then, hopefully one day, where I really want to live is Barcelona.
JR: When you read the phrase “favorite poet,” what poet flashes to mind?
CC: Bukowski. He's been the most important in my writing, in my passion for poetry, in my feeling of belonging. Most people, including completely educated and talented people, don't give him enough credit for making poetry real to people like me, who was always told that poetry was too sacred for me to delve into. It's not like he wrote the way he did because he couldn't write like Ashbery or Pound or anything. He just chose to write that way because that's how he could get to it as fast as possible.
JR: Tell me a poem that all humans should know at least part of.
CC: There are many, although I'm not a big fan of reciting poetry, your own or those of others, in the middle of a party. That's just bullshit. But, I think everyone should at least have read "Notebook of a Return to a Native Land," by Aimé Césaire. It's been a life-changing work of art for me.
JR: What’s the most unusual reaction you’ve ever gotten at a reading?
CC: Central Library. I forget what year. Maybe '99 or 2000. It was during National Poetry Month. A lady who was in the same writing workshop as I was used to work at the Library, scheduling events and such, so she asked a handful of people from the class to read one night at the Library. I was very excited. So a few days before the reading, she sends out a memo saying that there was going to be a meeting, sort of a rehearsal meeting.
JR: A rehearsal for a poetry reading?
CC: Naturally, I skipped it. Then, I am having lunch with two people who did attend the meeting and they tell me what it was really all about: the lady was making sure that NOBODY would bring in any obscene material. No curse words. Nothing. And this, for National Poetry Month, because nothing says poetry like censorship, right? I was pissed. So I did what any sane person would have done: I proceeded to write about seven new poems, short pieces, all in first person written in my journal writing voice, all from the point of view of a pedophile. I had a poem about sitting at the park just watching a young boy on the swing. About being at home trying to hide things from my girlfriend. About watching a family at the beach. About saying hello to a little girl.
JR: But no swearing?
CC: No curse words. Anyway, there were about 150 to 200 people at the event that night and while I'm reading, I just hear shuffling in seats and groaning. No applause. And when I'm done and walking off the stage, the lady just wants to kill me. And here's the answer to your question. Afterward, while I'm standing in the lobby alone, a young woman comes up to, stands in front of me for a few seconds, and says, "Um...I just wanted to let you know that...well, I have a close friend who is a counselor and you should really go see him. Here." And she wrote me her friend's phone number, gave it to me, and walked away. That's it. The most unusual reaction: being told I needed a counselor.
Come see Chiwan Choi read something that (hopefully) has nothing to do with pedophiles on Sunday, April 5 at 8pm at The Mountain Bar.