Kevin Sampsell is the author of a memoir (A Common Pornography), a novel (This Is Between Us), and a collection of collages and poems (I Made an Accident). He lives in Portland, Oregon and runs the influential small press, An award-winning bookseller, he has worked at Powell's City of Books since 1997. His collages have appeared on album covers, book covers, and in many publications like Kolaj Magazine, The Rumpus, The Weird Show, Chicago Quarterly Review, Little Engines, and Black Candies. His writing has appeared in Paper Darts, Southwest Review, Salon, Poetry Northwest, McSweeney's, Tin House, and elsewhere. He is the co-curator of a website featuring international collage artists.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Technically, my first book (that wasn't a chapbook) was a self-published collection of stories, poems, and word collages called How to Lose Your Mind With the Lights On (Future Tense Books, 1994). It's pretty wild to think about how long ago that came out. I think it changed my life because it was my first experience doing everything all on my own. I probably could have used an outside editor, but if I looked at that book now, I'm sure I'd still appreciate a lot of its goofy weirdness. My most recent book, I Made an Accident, is a collection of collages and poems. In some ways it feels similar to that first book because it's a hodge-podge of things meant to surprise, delight, and even confound you.
And how does it feel different? The collages are a lot better this time around.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I started in high school. My best friend and I would write weird little poems, but we didn't even call it poetry. We called them pieces. We were basically just trying to crack each other up, which I think was the early mission of the surrealists too, right? I wanted to write poems that were more Monty Python than Robert Frost.
3 - 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?
Over the years, it's been all over the place. I think I was more focused and compulsive for the first ten years or so of my writing life. I'd write whole stories pretty quickly, and sometimes several poems a day. I'm much slower now and I edit myself a lot more. But I know that writing, and especially publishing, is a slow game. It doesn't bother me to go slow now. But I'm always working on something, and a lot of times copious note-taking is involved.
4 - Where does a poem or work of prose 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?
Two of my books, the novel, This Is Between Us, and my memoir, A Common Pornography, were written in a non-linear fashion. I'd write chapters or scenes and then later spread them all out on the floor and figure out what order they needed to go. I finished a novel recently though that I wrote in a more traditional fashion, from the beginning to the end. And I challenged myself to write longer chapters for this book too. Off and on, it took about eight years. Who knows if it will ever get published.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do enjoy doing readings and I actually host about a hundred or more readings every year at my job (Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon). I think I'm a good reader and I'm good in front of an audience, so sometimes it helps sell a few more books when I can deliver an entertaining reading. I notice that at my job too–a great reading sells a lot more books than a mediocre one.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work?
One of the main things I think about when writing is how people interact with each other and how relationships work. I don't think I could convincingly write something very engaging about nature or politics. I'm captivated by people in the world and all the strange things that can happen to them. I especially love writing about ordinary people who find themselves in unexpected situations they probably don't want to be in. More recently, I do find myself fixating on death, loss, and grief as central themes.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
There are all kinds of writers and they all have different intentions or missions. I don't really think about what "role" they're trying to fill and I don't think they "should be" attempting to define the larger culture. I think questions like that feel too pointed and put too much pressure on writers to do something that others will see as "Important" (with a capital I). Writing is an art form that can do anything and be anything, and it shouldn't always concern itself with influence.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I love it for the most part. I want to know that my writing is making sense to another human. Most of the time, if I get a story or essay published somewhere, there is very little input from an editor. But the times when I've gotten notes from editors, it's been really helpful and eye-opening.
As an editor myself, I love it when I can help a writer make their work better, whether it be through small edits, suggestions, or playful challenges. With Future Tense, I work alongside my co-editor, Emma Alden, and it's appreciable to have her input and notes. We usually work through a shared Google doc and seeing how our thoughts help shape the book we're working on, makes it really enjoyable.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
A publisher friend told me a long time ago that I should be writing off things for my tax returns each year. I found a good tax lady who helped me figure out what I can and cannot do, and frankly, it was life-changing.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to poetry to memoir to collage)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think it's been a natural progression. I mean, I don't intentionally say, I have to do this genre now. I've always liked to make different things depending on whatever I might feel most interested in. For a while, it was personal essays, and then it was flash fiction, and eventually it was visual art. I even had a haiku phase! And I admire other people who can express themselves in various forms as well–musicians who can write novels, poets who can write memoirs, actors who can paint. Having a range of interests and talents has helped me not get stagnant. It gives me a sense of creative freedom, and also permission to experiment.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Ugh. I have such a bad writing routine most of the time. But the important thing is that I stick to it and I do have stretches when I can be focused and GSD. That stands for "Get Shit Done" and at the end of the day, that's what gives me satisfaction, whether it's writing, editing, collaging, stuff at work, etc. The name of the game is GSD.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Reading is the main kickstarter. It wakes up my brain and gives me ideas, especially poetry or a good disjointed lyric essay or something like that. Sometimes a good walk can do the trick too. Late night collaging can also inspire.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Sometimes, when my cat, Susan, yawns, I lean in to smell her cat breath, which I find so cute and comforting. I love her that much.
The smell of baking brownies is probably a close second.
14 - 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?
Art for sure. Collages especially. I am obsessed with collage art and have made a whole new world of friends in that world over the past few years. You could look at some collage art and probably transcribe it into poems. And yes, I've always loved music. And movies too! Good, slow movies about people. I don't really like action or superhero movies.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Early favorites like Richard Brautigan, Diane Williams, Garielle Lutz, Gordon Lish, Larry Brown, and Mark Leyner were key to my enthusiasm for writing and reading. There were also a lot of British music writers I enjoyed a great deal, before I was even a serious reader in my twenties. A lot of friends of mine are writers I am constantly inspired by as well: Kimberly King Parsons, Miriam Toews, Zachary Schomburg, Caren Beilin, Shane Kowalski. Plus the brilliant graphic novelist Daniel Clowes.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd love to have a book reviewed in Entertainment Weekly or record an album of Prince covers.
17 - 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?
I didn't go to college, so I always imagined myself working at a factory or something. I think being a mailman would be kind of cool. Or a third string quarterback in the NFL, so I could make a lot of money and probably never have to play in a real game. Working at a bookstore isn't bad though.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I wasn't smart enough to go to college or brave enough to join the military. I wanted to be a radio DJ and I was for a few years before moving to Portland (in 1992). Working in the world of books was kind of an accident. I just ended up here and held on to it because it was rewarding in a nurturing and creative way. Not sure if that answered your question very well. What makes me write is the constant urge to create and make things.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I really loved Someone Told Me by Jay Ponteri. It was published by a Portland small press so it might be hard to find, but it's an outstanding book of thoughtfully probing and beautiful lyric essays. My favorite film of last year was Marcel the Shell With Shoes On. It made me weep.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a couple of Future Tense projects and a new group show at my virtual collage gallery, Sharp Hands Gallery. As far as writing, I'm working on a couple of essays, or maybe they're more like long conceptual poems. One is about things in Portland turning into other things and another one is about things I don't remember–like the opposite of Joe Brainard's I Remember.