Mosaic Interview with Gregory Boytos

Gregory Boytos:
So you live in Santa Cruz, I have never been there, but I have always pictured it as a forest, well, actually similar to the shire, although I’m sure it is very different. It seems like a sort of artist colony with a permanent cool sea breeze and exotic animals and things like that, but I have no idea why I think that.

Gary Young:
I live about 13 miles north of Santa Cruz in an area of the Santa Cruz Mountains known as Bonny Doon. My home is perched on a cliff above the confluence of two streams. It has its charms. We share the woods with mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes and deer, as well as with an abundance of raptors: hawks, eagles, owls. The place is not always as tranquil as it appears to visitors. I’ve rebuilt our house twice; once after the Loma Prieta earthquake, and again after a tree fell through the house during a storm. We live in a beautiful spot, but we pay a price for the view.

GB:
Is it where you always wanted to live, or did you end up there for some other reason and it became the place you needed to live? If you had to move, and were suddenly fantastically wealthy (beyond comprehension), where would you settle down, and would you continue writing once there?

GY:
I needed to be away from the distractions of the city, so I moved to the woods. In the course of twenty-six years I’ve built a house here, a guesthouse, a studio for myself, and another for my wife; I’m fairly wedded to the place. As I’ve gotten older I do dream of moving back to town. The idea of walking to the market appeals to me, and it does get awfully damp under the trees. If I were rich, nothing much would change, except that I’d spend a couple of months each year in Wyoming, and maybe one in Mexico, just to get warm. I’d eat out more often, and at better restaurants, and of course I’d keep writing—that has nothing to do with money.

GB:
Most writers I have met always felt a bit different from everyone else. Even writers who were gifted athletes or scientists always never felt like they fit in with people who shared their other gift. Do you know this feeling? Do you have a related anecdote perhaps?

GY:
I suspect that feeling different from other people is a basic component of consciousness, and I don’t think writers have a lock on that particular neurosis. Artists may use that sense of difference as a crutch or as an excuse for bad behavior, but the truth is everyone is pretty much alike; it’s the little differences that make us charming.

GB:
Could you talk about something that you’ve always wanted to write, but for whatever reason haven’t or wont?

GY:
I’ve always wanted to write a novel about my father, a book that in my mind I call The Big Deal. While I was growing up, my father made a number of real fortunes, but through a combination of bad luck, hubris and alcohol he managed to lose them all, often spectacularly. Some of his big deals were farcical (The Positive Plus Polarity Pillow), some whimsical (a rose quartz mine), some practical (a bar), and some not (race horses). He fought the Shell Oil Company in court for ten years for the right to drill an oil well in the middle of Southern California’s largest field. He won the case, but the well came up dry. There are dozens of these stories, but I don’t think I have the stamina to detail them all. And of course my father is still alive.

GB:
There’s a stigma about writers that we are typically self-destructive in assorted ways, where do you believe this idea comes from? Is it completely Hemingway and Thompson’s fault, or do all writers have some small tick or something that makes them overindulge? Do you think that all humans might have this same instinct for self-destruction, but in writers it gets more attention since we are our favorite subjects?

GY:
Every artist puts him or herself at the mercy of forces that can destroy a fragile psyche. As Stevens says about poetry: “It can kill a man.” There are many stories of abuse and excess that feed the romantic vision of the poet/artist as suffering madman, but the truth is that most artists and writers are sober fellows and very workman-like. It’s a hard job being an artist. Very few artists have the stamina to be drunks, daredevils or drug addicts and still carry on serious creative endeavors.

GB:
Since writing might seem to some as a hobby, how does someone who does it professionally unwind? Do you have any crazy hobbies, or do you write fiction to take a break from poetry?

GY:
I have a family. Do my wife and kids count as a crazy hobby? And no poet ever takes a break from poetry.

GB:
Talk about a flop, that is something you thought was fantastic, but perhaps you were the only one who thought that, that is if this has ever happened to you.

GY:
I remember reading an article when I was about ten that predicted we’d all drive flying cars someday. I think that’s a great idea, and I’m still waiting.

GB:
As most writers who make their living from writing, there must have been a time before you were able to do this. What was the worst job you had to do in order to pay the rent and work on your craft?

GY:
I had a few bad jobs while I was in college—working at the 7-11 I remember was fairly odious, except for all of the free comic books. But I’ve only had one real job in my life. The year after I left graduate school I worked as a record buyer for a now defunct record chain. It nearly killed me. I lasted a year, then I bought a printing press and I never looked back.

GB:
Some people believe in the idea of totem animals. Essentially it is an animal that you are spiritually linked to. Not a specific pet, but a species that you seem to have constant and strange interactions with. Your guardian animal so to speak. Do you think you have one?

GY:
Yes, the rhinoceros. My first memory is of a rhinoceros: I dreamed of a rhinoceros standing in a field of purple light and woke up screaming. My mother picked me up and carried me into a room where a brass band was playing. I determined later that I had been at my Great-grandmother’s house in Texas. I was eleven months old. A few years later I had a vision of a rhinoceros while driving with my family in southern California. I saw it in an orange grove, and watched as it walked behind an orange tree and disappeared. Rhinos have come to me in dreams several times in the course of my life. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen one in quite a while.

GB:
Some people read poems and applaud the writer for a minute detail that perhaps you did not think about, how it completely fits inside the motif that occurs throughout the poem, and how it symbolizes something or other. How often do you think people over-read a poem, or how often do you instinctively put something down and it ends up being a perfect fit? How often do you write a poem and have these tiny details overlooked?

GY:
Whenever an artist puts him or herself in a position to create anything, the genius of the work being done exerts and manifests itself through the artist. Whenever I’m working on prints, it’s inevitable that my mistakes produce the finest results. It’s no different with poetry. We put ourselves in a position to be the conduit for accidents, and that’s where beauty and depth are born in every work of art. I can only guess whether any particular reader might notice.

GB:
You spoke here last year at a printing demonstration/reading and you mentioned the fact that you wrote poems with their eventual collection in mind (i.e. when you began to write poems for Pleasure you knew the collection was going to have something to do with pleasurable things). Do you find that this makes you more productive or prolific? Do you have side poems that you write because they are begging to be written, or is it just pleasure poems (for instance) until the collection was complete?

GY:
I have never been a prolific writer. I’m lazy, I have a family, and I work as a visual artist in addition to my poetry so I can only get so much done. I do think in terms of books, no doubt because of my work as a printer. Each of my books can be read as a long poem; I can’t imagine writing any other way.

GB:
Could you give advice to young(ish) writers about what the future will likely hold, a mantra that you enjoy, or something to keep in mind?

GY:
No one knows what the future will hold, and if anyone tells you they know, don’t listen to them.

GB:
Do you have any weird ticks? For instance some people can’t sleep with a top sheet, others cannot wear socks with holes in the big toe, others still must use plastic silverware because the metal stuff makes awful noises. I’ll admit, I’m the first two among others, do you have anything similar?

GY:
I’ve been told that I have some odd habits, but to tell you the truth, none of them seem odd to me.

GB:
Sometimes people have differences and sometimes these differences are settled in less than civilized manners. Have you ever been in a fistfight, or close? Have you ever been picked on for being the only writer in a room full of construction workers?

GY:
I was in a fight in the fourth grade. I beat up a boy and it made me sick. I’ve avoided physical confrontations ever since. I don’t think I’ve ever been picked on for being a writer, and most of my friends who work construction seem to find my work fascinating.

 
 
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