THINGS WE’RE DYING TO KNOW…
Let’s start with the book’s title and your cover image. How did you choose each? And, if I asked you to describe or sum up your book, what three words immediately come to mind?
I must admit that I grappled with the title – and titles generally come easy to me. For instance, my second novel, Whorehouse of the Mind: A Novel of Sex, Drugs and the Space Program, seemed like a no-brainer, although writer Richard Meltzer thought that I “appropriated” it from Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. I use the royal ‘we’ in my blog writing and Facebooking, so I came up with Our Beautiful Life. My publisher, the wonderful Gordy Grundy, said I should translate it into French, as we both think there are too many poseurs in L.A., so it became Notre Belle Vie for a while. I also thought about JAG: Jewish American Goddess, Being Cate Blanchett, What’s In It For Me, Dear C**T, Brainwreck and Screwtopia. "Screwtopia" actually ended up being the name of one of the book’s poems. Then there were the organic titles derived from the book’s poems, such as Juliet On the Prowl and An American Reverie. Finally, I am a huge Stephen Sondheim fan, and was perusing one of his books, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, and there it was – Isn’t It Rich, from "Send In the Clowns." I also used to play that gorgeous and enigmatic song on the harp at funerals and brisses, so this title had it all for me.
At the same time – while writing the poems and thinking of a title for the book, I was asking artist friends of mine if they would send me some images I could consider for the cover. For that, I was also asked to send these people several poems. The artist, Lita Albuquerque, loved the poems I sent and read them to her daughter, the choreographer/dancer, Jasmine Albuquerque Croissant. She immediately recommended the terrifically talented well-known Belgian artist, Katrien De Blauwer, whom Jas knew through her husband, Rodrigo Amarante. When Katrien agreed to supply the cover image, my publisher and I were overjoyed.
Three words to describe my book would be: Vivid, erotic and deeply disturbing. Seriously, I know we like to use the journalistic three, but I would also have to add, intoxicating and hilariously funny. Not to mention, profoundly human and occasionally surreal.
What were you trying to achieve with your book? Tell us about the world you were trying to create, and who lives in it.
I didn’t set out to “achieve” anything, except to write an authentic account of a life lived to its fullest, based on memories – sometimes incredibly detailed, sometimes foggy, often conjured. A free spirit lives in this book, someone, however, with whom I am quite familiar. In fact, I would have to say that we have a love/hate relationship. I also subtitled it, A Novella In Verse, because I feel that each of the poems is its own, self-contained story. There is a definite thread, a through-line, which some people have said is more along the lines of sex, drugs and travel. All I know is that this person has had quite a life. Perhaps I should have called it a memoir-in-verse, but that might have been too leading. In any case, by subtitling it a novella, I figured Hollywood might want to option it – and I would be more than happy to see a Cate Blanchett or Rooney Mara take a stab, with Julia Roberts in middle-aged and then the fabulous Meryl Streep looking back on it all with wisdom, wit and wonderment.
Can you describe your writing practice or process for this collection? Do you have a favorite revision strategy?
Since I am a freelance arts journalist who has interviewed thousands of people and is on constant deadlines (I have written more than 500 stories/reviews for the L.A. Times, I’ve interviewed hundreds of artists of all stripes for KUSC radio, and have also written program notes for the L.A. Philharmonic as well as the L.A. Master Chorale, introducing audiences to world premiere by such luminaries as Steve Reich, Billy Childs and the Matrix composer, Don Davis…and the list goes on), to put it bluntly, I write quickly. I have also re-invented myself – from professional harpist to print and broadcast journalist, finally, going digital and writing for online publications, as well as my own blog, The Looseleaf Report. That said, this book came about almost as a fluke. I was invited to a “Pasta and Poetry” party last June, so I figured I would bring a poem to read. I had been keeping notebooks (after all, I hail from the Looseleaf clan), for years, and, perusing several from a certain time period, saw the germ of something, which then became, Smile. There were all sorts of intellectuals, architects, artists, writers, et al at this party – many of whom were reading poetry aloud by famous poets. I was feeling a tad insecure and thought, perhaps, that I shouldn’t read. But I mustered my courage, read, and, in a word, killed. Then, a week or two later, my friend, Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Kate Johnson, asked me to play the harp at a big art event she was curating at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station in July. I reminded her that I didn’t play professionally anymore – I had actually abandoned my station wagon years ago – but that I could do spoken word. Kate quickly agreed.
I then wrote about nine or 10 poems (like choreographer, Agnes DeMille, when she was asked by the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo if she had an “American” piece of choreography the troupe could use for its U.S. debut, she said, “Of course,” then went home and made the work that became Rodeo. And, no, I am not comparing myself to DeMille, but, as I said – and to my point – I work quickly).
I am also very serious about editing, so after writing some 40-odd poems over the course of several months (I know, crazy, huh!), I tackled the editing and re-writing processes. My favorite revision strategy is “less is more, more or less.” I also had the astute eye and ear of my colleague, the Emmy Award-winning producer, Larry Gilbert, which was a great help, as was reading the poems out loud to hear how they were rolling off my Midwestern, twangy tongue.
How did you order the poems in the collection? Do you have a specific method for arranging your poems or is it sort of haphazard, like you lay the pages out on the floor and see what order you pick them back up in?
Ordering the poems was interesting and took a lot of wrangling. I wanted to begin with a bang – keep up the momentum, then get to some fairly serious works and end on a high note. I also took into account the people, places and subject matter, which was a lot of sex in a lot of different places with a lot of different characters. I would like to say that, like John Cage and Merce Cunningham, I used chance and the I Ching, but – hey – that’s just not true, although, of course I knew Merce, having interviewed him numerous times – and Cage, another genius and mushroom forager who was also an angel, and allowed me to record his 1948 work, In A Landscape for my albums, Harpnosis and Beyond Harpnosis.
What do you love to find in a poem you read, or love to craft into a poem you’re writing?
I love to find both humor and heart in works that I read and works that I write, though not necessarily at the same time in the same poem. Erudition isn’t totally out of the question, either, as well as life’s bigger issues – like what gown I should wear to the opening of the opera season. Not! Seriously, poetry has the reputation of being very personal, yet at the same time it should also strike a chord, i.e. be universal. It is fun, though, to mix it all up!
Can you share an excerpt from your book? And tell us why you chose this poem for us to read – did it galvanize the writing of the rest of the collection? Is it your book’s heart? Is it the first or last poem you wrote for the book?
This is a hard one. Each poem took a lot out of me. So, I would say to your readers, please go to the Amazon page and click on the book. The first poem, "Queen of the Surf," comes up and that is a particular favorite of mine.
If you had to convince someone walking by you in the park to read your book right then and there, what would you say?
Again, I would have a stranger look at that opening ode, "Queen of the Surf," and dare him or her to not laugh, to not have a reaction. I would also tell that person that if he or she bought the book, I would be more than happy to sign it!
For you, what is it to be a poet? What scares you most about being a writer? Gives you the most pleasure?
For me, being a poet is being true to myself. Even in my dance reviews, which many have likened to poetry, as they are filled with metaphors as well as a lot of pop culture references, I tell it like I see it – or my word as a critic is worthless. Indeed, I recently panned a major ballet company’s new, $2 million Sleeping Beauty, likening the stage to an episode of “Hoarders” (not that I’ve ever seen the show), and then ended my coverage with the following: “It might best be experienced after downing a couple of NoDoz.” So, in essence, nothing scares me about being a writer – except the dearth of occasional income. Back to being a poet, though: It means to excavate one’s inner being, to observe life in all of its beauty, grandeur, absurdities and insanities. When somebody tells me that my book sounds as if I could have been written it specifically for her, that is very cool. It’s also great to hear laughs and applause after I have read something, somewhere, especially in Los Angeles, where the crowds can be – and often are – very brutal.
Are there other types of writing (dictionaries, romance novels, comics, science textbooks, etc.) that help you to write poetry?
You are kidding, right? I mean, you can’t be serious here re: including dictionaries, romance novels, comics, and science textbooks helping me write poetry. Granted, I do love the dictionary and adore Roget’s Thesaurus (not for bedtime reading purposes, however), as well as the PDR (Physicians’ Desk Reference, circa 1977, when Quaaludes were legal), but I find romance novels ridiculous and I have never been keen on science – books, that is. Comics is another story. The late Harvey Pekar (American Splendor…From Off the Streets of Cleveland Comes), was a good friend of mine. We were both from Cleveland, and he was on my erstwhile TV show, The Looseleaf Report, a number of times. I listened to him carp, complain and continually bitch, even while he was becoming famous (I was in the audience in New York when he got kicked off the Letterman show on NBC), but in the process, he also made me laugh, cry, think and expand my universe. I really loved Harvey’s mind and always wanted him to include me as a character in his comics. But his wife, Joyce Brabner, wouldn’t have it. I love to read, of course, and being a journalist, I need to keep up by reading a bunch of newspapers, including The New York Times – the paper version - because I jumpstart my brain every morning with their crossword puzzle, which takes me less than five minutes on a Monday and a bit more time each day as the week goes by. (The degree of difficulty amps up, so by Saturday, it’s a killer.) I also love the New Yorker and the Hammacher Schlemmer Catalogue (curiously, I had a great aunt who married one of those guys – Hammacher or Schlemmer, I can’t remember which – or who – although the marriage didn’t stick). I also cannot live without Men’s Health and Field and Stream. The truth is, I am so into Netflix (Narcos, wow!), it is frightening, so when I’m not bingeing on "Making A Murderer" (that’s my Berkeley criminology degree coming into play), I’m reading biographies, and whatever else may in the air at the moment. I adore Malcolm Gladwell, Don DeLillo and Philip Roth. I once wrote a fan letter to Roth, wanting to know how he researched the harp in his book, I Married A Communist. Needless to say, I got no response. In spite of what I might say, write or do, I am probably old-school in my literary choices, and, as a white liberal-to-the-max Jewess, I made it my business to read Ta-Nehisi Coates, overexposed as he is. But, I gotta say, Hilary Mantel is fucking brilliant.
What are you working on now?
I am going to be reading an original monologue at Sit ‘N Spin, an ongoing series in which professional writers/comics read their works. The essay is called, "How I Lost My Public Access Virginity To A Fabulous Flying Russian." And, to be perfectly frank, I had poeticized an essay I had read there not that long ago, "The Dance Critic," making it the penultimate piece in my poetry collection. I am also working on several stories about prima ballerinas/ballerinos – and, when not at my desk, I’m at the theater, whether I’m working or not – soaking up the high and lowbrow atmosphere, hoping, beyond hope, to have my emotions elevated – or at least aroused in some form or another.
Of course, I’ll be doing a series of readings at galleries, bookstores and the like – and what I’m very excited about is that my publisher, Mr. Grundy and I, have plans for staged performances of Isn’t It Rich? Three different actresses (one in her 20s, another in her 40s and one in her 60s), will each read from the book, something I alluded to earlier, albeit that is my wishful cinematic rendering. There will also be music and we might even add a choreographic element, considering my terpsichorean cred. It’s actually amazing, as all sorts of women are telling me they would love to take part in these performances. We will be auditioning actors, though, and Mr. Grundy and I, are also thinking about theaters – traditional and non-traditional. Since I’m familiar with all of the major venues in town – and am finding new ones – pop-ups, for example – all the time, this is part of that process, as well. Then there’s the matter of how to break down the book for the actresses, but with Mr. Grundy directing, I have no doubt that this will be a hot ticket. I am also working on my next book, whose subject matter and title shall remain, at this time, unnamed. Oh – and if all this weren’t enough, producer/actor Kenneth Hughes (Einstein’s God Model), is working on a documentary about me and The Looseleaf Report.
Without stopping to think, write a list of five poets whose work you would tattoo on your body, or at least write in permanent marker on your clothing, to take with you at all times.
I am Jewish, albeit Newish Jewish, but still believe that getting tattooed is against my religion. I also hold most of my clothes as sacred items (seeing as friends designed them or they belonged to my grandmother – she had incredible taste and I am particularly fond of her monogrammed, white mink bomber jacket from the '70s, which I get to wear here in L.A. on Chanukah and New Year’s Eve), ergo to scribble all over these garments with any kind of permanent marker would not be something in which I would or could indulge.
What’s a question you wish I asked? (And how would you answer it?)
Are you still fucking surfers and if so, where do you find both the time – and them – and how do they stack up against your Laguna Beach dudes? I don’t kiss and tell, but let’s just say that, yeah, the surf’s most decidedly up!
Purchase Isn't It Rich? A Novella in Verse.
Victoria Looseleaf lives and loves in Los Angeles. As an award-winning arts journalist for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Dance Magazine, Fjord Review, KCET Artbound and other outlets, the redhead provocateur has been filing datelines from her many lives in Abu Dhabi, Vienna, Havana, Tel Aviv, Berlin, Amsterdam, Zürich, Buenos Aires and dozens more points on the compass. Once a professional harpist, her albums Harpnosis® and Beyond Harpnosis® can be found on turntables of discerning listeners everywhere. The Looseleaf Report, a staple of Los Angeles and New York television, offered celebrity interviews, humor and underground arts insights with over 400 broadcast shows. Isn’t It Rich? is Victoria Looseleaf’s first book of poetry. Find her online at http://victorialooseleaf.com.
Victoria recently did a radio interview with Mark Lynch of WICN. Listen here.
The great drag legend, Tony-nominated playwright, Charles Busch, wrote a wonderful preface to Victoria's poem, "Sunday In The Pool With Fred" for the sight, Towleroad. Read it here.
Victoria is honored to be the first reader at the grand opening of AG Geiger bookstore in LA's Chinatown.
The inimitable performance artist/actor, John Fleck, recently interviewed Victoria for Cultural Weekly. Read it here.
Nicole Rollender is a poet, editor and seeker.