A Foil to the Horseman of the Literary Apocalypse, Even After Three Decades
Ashley Yang-Thompson with Kevin Sampsell
Some people know Kevin as a collage artist. Some people know Kevin for his writing. Some people know Kevin as Powell’s small press person. Some people know Kevin as a publisher (Future Tense Books). Some people know Kevin for the events he hosts all over town. Some people know Kevin for weird performance art shit. Some people know Kevin because Portland is small and he’s lived here since 1992. But until this exclusive interview, dear reader, no one has known about ALL his multitudes. Maybe.
Ashley Yang-Thompson: I love the title of your latest book, I Made an Accident. Do you think that poetry and art is a glorified version of a micturating dog marking its territory?
Kevin Sampsell: I’ve heard that when dogs smell the pee of other dogs in their neighborhood, it’s like they’re getting the news of the day. So I guess pee is like gossip. If an artist had to walk around smelling the pee of other artists to get the daily news, I think it would result in a more vicious cycle of art-on-art crime. Thinking about art and ego (and piss) in that regard, I question whether something is intentional or an accident. Since I am not trained in any art or skill, I think my work is an accident.
Ash: You may not be trained by an institution, but you’re certainly an autodidact. Although no matter how “skilled” an artist is, my favorite work is often a collaboration with chance. Like Marcel Duchamp’s “The Large Glass” breaking on its way to the exhibition, and Duchamp exclaiming, “Now, it’s finished!” Do you think your lack of institutional training has benefited you? A lot of people have been ruined by academia because they can aim too precisely and stop making accidents.
Kevin: I think it has certainly benefited me, in that sometimes you can learn a lot by working through–or with– your naivety and rawness, but I never really liked school in the first place. Somebody else might totally benefit from academic environments, but I don’t think I was ready for it. I respect it though, and can see how certain people can really thrive and learn from that kind of teaching. I’ve worked at a bookstore for about half my life though and that’s been a huge education on its own. I just keep learning from reading a lot and being around other writers and artists, so I guess that’s been my training.
I love that story about Duchamp.
Ash: You’ve written extremely personal and erotic non-fiction, and I’ve been told that everybody knows everybody in Portland’s diminutive arts/literary scene. Do you ever think about how much your coworkers or bosses might know about your sex life? For example, we’ve never talked about it directly, but I know all the details of your first experiences with oral sex.
Kevin: Well, one great thing about recording so many moments and details about your life through writing or art, is that it gives you a catalog to refer to. For instance, I sometimes forget certain things from my life and then I remember that I probably wrote about it somewhere. As if my nonfiction writing was merely a very sporadic diary. For example: I’m glad I wrote about my first oral sex experiences, because if you asked me now, I don’t know if I could tell you. Thank God I wrote about that!
Ash: Haha. Do you ever hear back from ex-lovers you’ve written about?
Kevin: There have been a couple of times, especially after A Common Pornography came out. One was very sweet about it, but said she was glad I didn’t use her real name. When I write about real people and things that have happened, I often change names. In the end, it’s usually me who is most embarrassing in the story. If I feel mortified to put something out, I know it’s probably pretty good.
Ash: I am also in a state of constant humiliation (when it comes to my art). Why do you think enduring any and all embarrassments is so crucial to delivering a literary gut-punch?
Kevin: Being embarrassed/embarrassing is just part of being human and it’s also a way to connect with readers or other people in general. Imperfection is the base of who everyone is. I don’t want to ever meet a perfect person.
Ash: My step-dad always said, only Jesus was perfect and they crucified him!
Do you believe there is such a thing as non-fiction? I think narrative itself is inherently fictional (framing and collating material from an unstable memory), and that nonfiction is as delusively objective as a photograph.
Kevin: Yeah, it’s hard to say. People can manipulate “real life” pretty easily. Just look at reality TV or documentaries. Even on certain news shows, it’s easy for context to be destroyed in the name of a sound bite or attention spans. Also: conspiracy theories get clicks and ratings. Maybe that proves that fiction really is popular. I’m getting this pretty twisted, I know. The answer to your question is yes–there certainly is non-fiction.
How pure is that non-fiction though?
- Who cares
- It’s a mystery
- To the author it’s 100%
- The reader must trust the writer
- All of the above
Ash: To change the subject a bit, I want to talk about the state of poetry readings. At most poetry readings, I feel like crying tears of boredom. I also feel enraged that soporific readings promulgate the notion that poetry is a fun-sucking vampire. I’ve heard you tell stories about saturnalian poetry readings at Voodoo Donuts – can you tell me more about Haiku Inferno?
Kevin: I always loved haiku and wanted to do something funny and performative with it. I formed this group in 2004 with my (now ex-) wife (B Frayn Masters), my best friend from work (Elizabeth Miller), and the loudest poet in Portland at the time (Frank D’Andrea). We would do these very straight-faced performances where we would read a bunch of topical haiku**, rapid fire-style, and then intersperse that with ridiculous tea ceremonies, karate demonstrations, and other distractions. We did a bunch of shows for about four years, opening for punk bands, jump rope troupes, comedians, writers, and other performers. We made fun of poetry even though we were all haiku masters, truly. And yes–we did a few readings at Voodoo Doughnut when they first opened in their original tiny space. They didn’t have a stage so we had to climb a ladder to this little storage nook, and sit on our knees to perform. The audience (they could only fit twenty or so people in there) had to crane their necks up to watch us. It was awkward and uncomfortable for everyone, in a variety of ways. Eventually, in 2007, we put out a chapbook of a bunch of our haiku and it was really beautiful. They’re pretty hard to find now though. The reaction to our group from haiku purists was not very enthusiastic. It was fun, but pretty silly.
**One thing that we always had to tell people was “The plural of haiku is haiku.”
I might have some other images (real life black and white photos), but here’s one of our “band photos” that I found on Facebook Haha (clockwise from top: Frank, me, Elizabeth, B Frayn). I don’t think we have any pics of us in performance.
Ash: You started your own press, Future Tense, in 1990, and since then you’ve published over 60 books and become a bonafide Small Press Legend. What advice would you give to people who are contemplating starting their own press?
Kevin: Think about–and know–why you want to do a press in the first place. Figure out your expectations and the expectations of the writers you’re going to work with. I think a lot of people start small presses thinking it’s all fun and global domination and bags of chunky money, but it’s also a load of work and steady commitment to reading and writing and publishing. Don’t get in over your head with promises. Start small. Be serious but with a wink. Wear something cute. Do it for the kids. Use a lot of sports analogies. Go for it on 4th down. Kick out the jams. Write everything off on your taxes.
Ash: You’ve published numerous books with a heterogeneous range of presses, including Tin House, Harper Collins and Clash Press. You mentioned that you’ve had trouble finding a publisher for your latest book, which you described as your weirdest book yet. What makes it such an outlier?
And what stops you from self-publishing a la Gertrude Stein?
Kevin: Yeah, it’s been a nightmare trying to find a publisher for this book. Some editors and agents say it’s too fantastical, or they say they don’t like stories about babies sneaking out of their homes at night to talk to the moon (the baby’s father). I don’t really like self-publishing my stuff anymore. For this particular book, I think I just need to know that someone else loves it. When I finished the book almost three years ago (right on the brink of COVID), I had no idea it would take this long and still not have a home. It’s a reminder to never take publishing for granted.
Ash: Before I began interviewing you, I googled you for the first time, and dozens of interviews surfaced. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve been asked in an interview?
Kevin: That’s a hard question. I mostly get asked about writing and publishing. I did a “self-interview” once for a site called The Nervous Breakdown and I asked myself: If you were to drive around naked, what song would you crank on the car stereo? My answer: Something perverse like Beethoven.
But outside of interviews, a girlfriend from a few years ago once asked me, “What’s the worst email you’ve ever received?” It’s such a scary question, I still nervously laugh out loud whenever I think about it.
Ash: What’s the worst email you’ve ever received?
Kevin: Heh heh heh heh.
Ash: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve done sexually?
Kevin: Now, that is the weirdest thing anyone has ever asked me in an interview!
In February 2023, Kevin showed me a poem he was working on, What Used to Be… about the changing facade of Portland, which made me think of the traveling gnome prank popularized by the film Amelie – but what if we used my free standing Flesh Walrus in lieu of a gnome? With Katie Price as our photographer, we traversed Portland with the Flesh Walrus and made The Flesh Walrus Guide to Portland.
Ash: I’m not sure how to fit the What used to be… into this interview….
Kevin: I feel like it goes with the social practice theme of the journal, no? I see it as my first social practice project.
Ash: What was the inspiration for What used to be… poem?
Yeah, I guess you’d call it a poem, or a train of thought. Because I’ve lived in Portland for so long, from the early 90s, when it was cheap to live here and artists and musicians moved here because rents were low, to the slow growth that turned into the booming growth of the last ten years. So many things have changed, so if I’m driving around with someone, especially someone who’s not as familiar with the area, I find myself saying things like, “That place used to be this other place” or “I used to hang out there when it was this other business.” It’s partly a history lesson and part nostalgia. I started writing down a bunch of these changes and realized it was kind of interesting and funny and sad and ironic. It’s something that could easily be an ongoing project because things are always changing. The process of gentrification through real estate feels more tangible and disturbing when it’s written down.
Kevin Sampsel is a longtime Portland writer, small press publisher (Future Tense Books), bookseller (at Powell’s), and collage artist. He’s the author of a novel (This Is Between Us, Tin House) a memoir (A Common Pornography, Harper Perennial), and other books. He was also editor of the anthology, Portland Noir (Akashic Books). One of his essays, I’m Jumping Off the Bridge, appeared in Best American Essays 2013. More recently, he’s published short stories in places like Paper Darts, Joyland, Southwest Review, and Diagram. A book of his collages and poems, I Made an Accident, was published in 2022 by Clash Books.