Keith Kumasen Abbott was born in Tacoma, Washington, grew up in the Northwest, lived in California for 28 years and now resides with his wife Lani in Longmont, Colorado. Currently he is on the faculty of the Writing and Poetics Department & Visual Arts Department at Naropa University, where he teaches MFA workshops and Asian calligraphy.
How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first modest chapbook was poetry and that made me a published writer. I put “writer” on my United States passport. And declared myself such whenever it seemed likely to aid that moment. My latest publication, Downstream from Trout Fishing in America: A Memoir of Richard Brautigan continued my meditation on my friend Richard and our shared life and times. The subjects didn’t change all that much, from poetry to prose: celebration of the sensual life, loyalty, friendship and love via comedy and clarity and how to maintain those qualities in the face of oppression and despair. At Naropa University I now teach writing workshops that engage such issues and so I have another outlet for that practice. Big difference now with publishing is doing blog interviews for Downstream publicity. Before that outlet I’d learned how to work the publishing and newspaper industry, the reading circuit and old fashion literary word of mouth around San Francisco to promote my writing.
How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Yes. Poetry was so insistent in my life it seemed easier to write because my life was saturated with songs, via radio. I started writing both poetry and plots for drawing comics early on, influenced by EC, DC and Mad comics. Songs were poetry for dancing. I played in the middle school band, so I learned to read a little music. Also my older sister Judy took me to an Alan Freed style rhythm and blues revue around 1957 in the Temple Theater of Tacoma, Washington. The show possibly featuring Fats Domino, The Drifters, Clyde McPhatter, Frankie Lymon, Buddy Holly, Paul Anka, the Everly Brothers.
The two artists I remembered best were LaVern Baker and Chuck Berry. Baker because she and her backups were wearing fishtail dresses so tight that they had to be lifted straight up on stage by some big guys, something the ladies seemed to enjoy. Also she sang “Jim Dandy (To The Rescue)” which gave me the lovely idea that I might have a bright future with like-minded women. Berry closed the show and literally had the teenage girls falling out of their seats to get at him, a confirmation that young women felt similar sensations that I did about the music and about the music of our hormonal systems. And logically, what songs or poems were good for and why I might want to write poems and learn to dance good.
I didn’t get to go with my sister to the Elvis Presley concert at Stadium High. I believe this event was captured on a B & W film by the way, much broadcast over the years. But my sister’s girlfriends seemed to dote on his music, too and needed partners for dance practice and that helped me learn to dance. So social advantages to poetry were obvious.
Then I read The Dharma Bums in 1958. There I learned about Gary Snyder who wrote poems set in the Northwest, including places that I knew. My family worked and played outdoors, and I learned fishing and camping skills early on. My life was lived mostly in the natural world of the Northwest, on a “stump” ranch with patches of forests nearby for exploration. Those skills connected me to The Dharma Bums. From that book’s use of Han Shan, I bought The White Pony, an anthology of Chinese poetry and embarked on my life with Zen also. Zen seemed clear because it dealt with the world that I knew outside my door, so those Buddhist concerns didn’t seem particularly exotic, but common sense. Also the Seattle Art Museum featured Asian culture. I related to that because its art showed the world of misty pines outside my attic bedroom window. Solitude I was very, very familiar with, as I liked to roam in the NW woods by myself. I erected camps in trees and built lean-tos on uprooted tree root-wads. Chinese and Japanese poetry got connected to my deep pleasure in nature early on.
How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
For me poetry comes from spoken rhythms and/or rhythmic images. The power of those sources often determines how many drafts it takes to get a poem done, both negatively and positively. Some are too powerful and lead me astray via too many possibilities. Others lead me right to where they end. I write poetry by hand. I wrote quickly until I was about 23. About then I was dissatisfied with my drafts. I was ruining my works somehow by revision—perhaps too many college lit courses—so I embarked on a visualization regime. I made a deal with myself not to write down anything until it was set in my mind. So for a year I revised poems mentally until they felt done. Before this, I was writing 4-6 adequate poems a year. For that year I wrote 4-6 poems that worked, but they were much different than my previous work. That work started getting published. So I continued to do mental rehearsals, gaining skills for watching my mind’s arrangements.
Fiction takes strong visualization and memorization skills plus an ear for dialogue. Luckily I grew up among storytellers. Perhaps due to my teenage writing and drawing Mad magazine imitations in panels, I favor discrete scenes, so I usually produce units that can be reworked without damaging the whole short story or chapter. No prose ever is done in first draft. If I have told part of a story over and over to buddies then the first drafts are easier. If I am assembling a life from many lives and from imaginative improvs on those assembled lives, then the task is to test and select the best, most direct ways to present aspects of that character/scene.
For a memoir like Downstream I assembled my own anecdotes and letters about Brautigan first, interviewed mutual friends, and then mined the Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and other media coverage for materials about his life that I did not know. For novels I often build Character Files for each person. List how they talk, look, live, social class issues, family, friends, etc. I visualize where they live, how they move, etc. That’s the fun part. Nothing has to fit any particular plot, but these lists give me confidence. I get to know each person in random ways. The lists are used mostly because I tend to rewrite each draft for each person in the scene. How kind or how cruel they may be, parameters like that. Their habitual, intentional and impulsive actions form in my mind. Names are so important to me that I have alumni bulletins and directories to find the right names and social class strata: Yale, Baylor, etc. For The First Thing Coming, Northwest stories set around Tacoma, I found a 1957 Tacoma city directory, a 1963 yellow pages, yearbooks, maps, etc. for that time and place. In one story I wrote, I alternated actual Tacoma drive-in restaurant names with fake ones, just to amuse myself.
Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a “book” from the very beginning?
In the 1970s I wrote an autobiographical book called The Second Time I Saw Pete but never published it, despite an offer to do so. I don’t handle first person that well for various reasons. So Pete dissatisfied me. Lucky for me I didn’t publish, because I ended up creating several books from its contents: short story collections The First Thing Coming, Harum Scarum and The French Girl, the novels Mordecai of Monterey and Racer, and the non-fiction Downstream from Trout Fishing in America, among other works. Each time I saw some episode in Pete “had legs”: then I knew that that writing could be expanded into novels, short stories or memoirs.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
For the Bay Area, San Francisco and Berkeley, a young writer had to do readings and be a good reader and performer. I worked hard on reading to an audience. For preparation I employed a handwritten notation system for pauses, emphasis, accents, and speed of phrasing for my prose manuscripts. Later I taped practice runs and listened to myself to improve delivery to aid revision. I also employed actors to read and tape some dialogue or monologues.
For fiction I learned early to mark changes of intonation and hard to say passages, especially pauses where the audience got time to react. During the pauses I learned to monitor the audience for any reactions. Also marked any “breakpoints” in my work while performing. Breakpoints were places where something else might happen or where some other material may be generated in revisions. Tryouts of ms. were invaluable, to judge if the audience was tuned into my reading. I don’t enjoy readings as much any more, though recently I did a long reading for a Jazz Festival in Davis, California. For that I practiced a careful playlist of fiction, memoir and poetry selected for pacing and tone, mostly. It was very successful because the audience was there to listen and enjoy, due to the collaborations of music and texts that preceded my performance.
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I make art by perceptions, not questions. My work has always engaged a contemplative aspect. My college major in western philosophy and logic gave me many structures and pattern recognition for thought, but then so did my studies in Chinese philosophy, too (Chuang Tzu became a yearly read for me). From that time on I enjoyed reading Wittgenstein and I built up a good library of his works at one time. As I grew older, I only enjoyed reading him perhaps 10% of my reading time, but I compare those adventures to whetting a blade. He sharpens my mind for perceptions of certain designs and for learning new configurations of thought. Taoism, Mahayana Buddhism and Zen supplied the most active and available insights for my writing early on; the world that those people experienced was the world I lived in. Eihei Dogen supplied intense observations of the worlds we all live in and he displays a remarkably subtle and supple spirit. One result was that late in my life, Kobun Chino Roshi ordained me as a lay monk in Dogen’s Soto Zen lineage.
What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Where each perception is now and what each perception is now.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
When I find good editors I treasure and cultivate them. Recently for Downstream, I had the pleasure of working with Duncan B. Barlow at Astrophil Press who much improved that memoir. I try to model those editors to my student writers and demonstrate for them what those editors have shown me. I worked in journalism and was fortunate that some excellent editors trained me. I cultivated my first readers for my ms. carefully and I’ve had some excellent ones. Creative editorial practices are really specific to my work and while teaching at Naropa University I lend them out for anyone who wishes to experiment.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
One best piece of advice was an old standard from Arnold Saint Subber, a comedy producer who I worked with: your audience/readers are always ahead of you. With his help I figured out why: because you are in love with your works and therefore blind, and your audience and readers are not in love with them, at least not instantly and they are never as totally blind as you.
How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to filmmaking)? What do you see as the appeal?
All dramatic writing is terribly difficult to do well. I managed to co-write a screenplay adaptation of my long short story, Spanish Castle. The screenwriter and producer Ozzie Cheek patiently guided and mentored me. I wrote the first draft from memory, alone. I did not consult my original text. I had been teaching the story for several years so I thought I was familiar with its characters. But I eliminated completely one character without noticing that I did the surgery at all. Turned out that guy was not necessary for the story in screenplay form. Rewrites with Ozzie were excellent training.
The appeal of adapting a story to screenplay is the intense scrutiny each scene receives so that moment may be distilled down to one line of dialogue or one shot to create the same or stronger effects as an entire fictional scene. Like fiction, the screenwriters have to know everything possible about the entire scene and characters, but only chose the right elements in the right order to deliver a point. Conventional but useful wisdoms are to tell a story in the cuts between the scenes. Get into the scene late, leave the scene early. Let the viewer participate by supplying the connections that the cut implies.
I once went to a lecture by a brilliant graphic designer for computers with a very savvy friend, George Mattingly, who ran Blue Wind Press, the publisher of three of my books. I knew a modest amount of design elements, but this designer was so sharp, that I lost track about a third of the way in. Because this designer often paused and considered what he’d say next, during one gap, I quickly asked George if he was following this. He said, “Yes, he’s amazing. He’s skipping all the obvious points we all know and telling us just the new ideas.” That’s how lively drama and film works, too.
Short stories I was taught in college largely bored me. That was the era of grey academic sludge college anthologies. I reverted back to my teenage loves in short stories, but didn’t study them and how they worked, because I was in love with Gogol, Twain, Turgenev, Chekov, Anderson, Hemingway, Algren, Chandler, mostly guys, except for of course Flannery O’Conner. Brautigan literally loaned me Babel, but I couldn’t assimilate Babel’s techniques despite my admiration. I was concentrating on novels. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s I was in love with Magical Realists: Jorge Amado, Cortazar, etc. Then in the late 1970s I saw new American stories that went back to Chekov etc. Bobbie Ann Mason, Carver, Beatty, etc. However, these were structured more like poetry, open-ended and energized with life rather than narcotized by ideas. Then I understood how hard it was to write a good story (like a lyric poem is hard to write) but possible for me. I set myself the task of doing my Northwest stories in that form, as a challenge.
What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Raised on a farm, feeding the livestock, so my habit is up at 5 or 5:30 a.m.. Top grade coffee or tea essential. Brief breakfast. Meditate enough to get clear about what’s up in the old bean that morning. Get to work immediately as possible. Research, outlines, rewrites, new works. Also, living with a wife and daughter a large part of my life, in suburban or urban areas, mornings were quiet then. My wife says it is almost impossible to reach me at these times. I used to take breaks at 10 a.m. for printing out or marking up drafts. Break rewards originally were serious dark french roast coffee with one row of high-test dark chocolate from a Lindt bar. Now, I drink really fine green tea for a break, dark chocolate for afterwards. Sit and think over what has come up that morning. Rewrite, outline or edit until my concentration fades. Then get out fast and go do something physical immediately. Garden, housework, Tai Chi, walk the dog, truck or landscape work, etc. For me physical activity essential for mental health.
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I never rely on inspiration. Welcome it at the right time. I fear it sometimes. I an enthusiastic as much as possible, rather than inspired. Now, because my energy patterns are so morning bound, I don’t like to get inspired in the evening, as I can’t follow through. Recently, house-sitting in Inverness, California where my bedroom had multiple vintage photographs of Northwest life, I got a flash around 7 or 8 p.m. and wrote a Northwest story draft. A year and a half and 28 drafts later, I’ve almost got that in shape. If I’d waited until morning and wrote in a calmer state of mind, I know that the result would have been a much better first draft.
As I said, I keep character files for my longer fiction. I review them. For manuscript revision I blow up printouts in different fonts and sizes to alter shapes of paragraphs, then I red line edits and markup paragraphs etc. Poems the same, if typed out. I test lines by removing them, shuffling them around. I test rhythms a great deal. Mostly for poetry I’ve been writing haiku no renga, or renku linked verse, with three friends, Pat Nolan, Maureen Owen, Michel Sowl. Transitions are vital in renku and great training for fiction. I generate large supplies of one, two and three lined stanzas. If stuck and I can’t find a renku link, I cut and paste old lines or stanzas randomly without looking at the screen to produce different strange combinations. So for both prose and poetry I use my prep work to restart or service current projects and/or start new ones.
What did your favourite teacher teach you?
Too many teachers to name. Concentrated relaxation during action came with Tai Chi and that was a gift. In San Francisco and Berkeley Lenzie Williams and his teacher Ben Pang Lo taught relaxed concentration, relaxed breath and not disturbing the air with any actions. All these three are totally impossible to do except when they happen. Then you wonder “Why can’t I do this all the time?” Lenzie gave one lecture a year and told us, “If you don’t understand what I’m saying, put it in your puzzle kit and take it out from time to time.” Sure enough, I didn’t understand anything from his first lecture, but later, something he said came vividly true during my practice. And I paid close attention to him from then on and used that idea for writing. Ben was a Chinese Marine drill sergeant: impossible to please but inspirational because he modeled everything he asked you to do. Plus Ben did those magical Tai Chi demos that defy physics.
David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Music as I said above. Visual art: my wife Lani’s keen trained eye for art has been a joy all my life. She has been a great teacher. We go to new cities and “march for art.” I’ve been to some of the greatest museums in the world with her and benefited from her keen and lovely perspectives of artists and art. I especially enjoy how paintings are structured; how your eye enters and leaves a painting, etc. Cezanne and Bada Shanren are two I study whenever I can. For me Bada’s work inspires poetry; Cezanne provides poetic organization for stories.
Since 1972 I’ve studied and practiced Italic and Brush calligraphy, especially profited from the deep and precise practice of watching my teacher, Kobun Chino Roshi, paint. Zen art is a passion for me and brush art is integral to my meditation practice. I have a long row of art books devoted to that, and take great pleasure in experiencing it first hand. Also the superb brush calligraphic work by my other main teacher and friend at Naropa, Harrison Xinshi Tu. Harrison is a joyous master of that art. I visit his work at the Denver Art Museum and whenever he has a show locally.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
List is too long to type here. Writers I know and have met. Like Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Steve Carey, Lucia Berlin, Kenneth Rexroth, Jane Hirschfield to name West Coast writers. Schuyler, Berrigan, Notley, Kleinzahler, East Coast poets. Those I’ve only read but not met in my career: Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, William Carlos Williams, Kerouac. Whitman, O’Hara, Dickinson, Austin, Twain, Babel, Gogol, Chekov, Munro, Tolstoy: people I reread constantly. And many contemporary prose writers too numerous to name.
What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
I’d like to do this moment and then as many more as I am allowed.
If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Not an option. I wrote a story exploring that issue, “Over and Under” in The First Thing Coming. There I imagined what I would have done if I’d let my lesser talents and lesser social needs dominate me earlier in my life.
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
To apply my concentration and attention to life’s whirlpools in lovely silky ways.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. She stuns me at times. Have no idea if that Happiness is a great book or collection. Way too new. No way to imitate her, but useful to rethink my fascistic Plot Master tendencies due to her mazes and see her new and startling avenues for human lives. Her stories create fissures in my habitual writing practices. I like that sensation.
Film? Hard for me to say “great” re films. I lack any expertise. I’m partial to comedies, and like to think about films or their scenes as teaching aids for my writing workshops. The notion that the Seven Deadly Sins & their matching virtues are the writer’s best friends caused me to use the comedy Intolerable Cruelty in my classes, almost instantly after my first viewing. Terrific teaching tools for scene and character work. A lot of fine dialogue in there, commedia dell’arte, boffo style. But constructed like all good comedies as tight as a Rolex watch. The 400 Blows electrified me as a young man and provided an unattainable model (and a goad) for story writing. For filmed drama, I seem to remember Scofield’s King Lear as an extraordinary experience. Then Kurosawa comes to mind, too, Ran. But great stage performances stay with me more because they are live: Tom Courtney in She Stoops To Conquer, in London. Two Shepard plays: Ed Harris in Fool For Love and Jim Haynie in True West both in San Francisco.
What are you currently working on?
A Fake Memoir, Whack Jobs, about my first year in college as a football scholarship player. I must get back to it this summer.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;