Talking Paper Interview Series: A. Razor

A. Razor is a writer and poet based in Los Angeles, who co-founded Punk Hostage Press with fellow writer Iris Berry in 2012, and literary outreach non-profit Words as Works soon after. Born in Brooklyn, but raised in California, Razor has lived a turbulent life that has included periods of homelessness and prison incarceration. Yet a consistent dedication to his personal writing process has remained a therapeutic constant and has produced a prolific literary output. First published as a teen at the dawn of the 1980s in L.A.’s underground magazines and literary publications, Razor met poetry publisher Drew Bailey at a reading in 1982 and eventually published 11 titles through Bailey’s Drew Blood Press from 1984–95—beginning with the chapbook, Spare Blades, and concluding with Ash Graffiti After a Riot. 2012 saw the release of Better Than a Gun in a Knife Fight from Punk Hostage Press, edited by Berry, along with Beaten Up Beaten Down, with an introduction by S.A. Griffin. Razor brought copies of both titles with him for a July reading in Brooklyn at Nunu Chocolates Café & Tap Room organized by Nomadic Press. The event’s other writers included Puma Perl, Amy Saul-Zerby, and James Anthony Tropeano. Before leaving town, I sat down with Razor to discuss the history of Punk Hostage Press, his literary influences, as well as the process that has sustained him, and a recent habit of posting poetry on Facebook during his wide-ranging travels.

On the Origins of Punk Hostage Press

Iris Berry cofounded it with me. The name Punk Hostage was a thing that she had come up with, like a term. We were both talking about it one day, how it's one of those terms that has a lot of different meanings. It can be taken a lot of different ways. We were actually working on a book together. She was editing my book, Better than A Gun In a Knife Fight, and it was going to be put out on another press. We were presenting it to the Tia Chucha Press to Luis Rodriguez. He said that he had time constraints that would be maybe 18 months to two years before the book would come out, because he had so many books that he was doing. We were sitting there at the Tia Chucha Bookstore and Cultural Center, and he was just like, "Why don't you guys just put it out?" I had always looked to him as a mentor. He's been a really big figure on that Los Angeles literary scene. And we talked about it on the drive back to Hollywood, and Iris was like, "Yeah, why don't we do that?" So we seemed to think that we could do it. We had recently been talking about the term “Punk Hostage,” and we decided it would be a good name for the press. Our only intention was, she was going to put out my book that she edited, and then I was going to edit her book, The Daughters of Bastards, and we were going to put out two books.

We had to kind of learn the ropes a little. There was a writer, Danny Baker who had come along, and he had put out a chapbook of his first collection, and he said he had some more writing. We had been talking to him, and he had participated in a reading that we did in Venice Beach. We approached him and said, "Can we do your book first to kind of run something up the flagpole, so we know what we're doing? Kind of test the water and see if this will actually work?” The book was Fractured. That was the first book that we put out, actually, and we learned a lot doing that book. It was a good first book for Danny—a first full-length collection of poetry from a new writer. Billy Burgos did this artwork for the cover of the chapbook, and we just used that for the cover of the full-length book. So it kind of came together real organically.

A lot of people just came to us with manuscripts that were really good, and it just started kind of taking on the life of its own. Right away, we realized we ere going to publish more than just those books.

We worked with Amy Watson at 1984 Printing in Oakland, and she gave us a really good deal. It probably came to like four-something a book, and it was really nice paper, a really nice cover. It had that kind of Black Sparrow Press type feel to it, and that's what we were going for. Then when we designed the book covers for the next two books, my book and her book, we kind of did like homages to the Black Sparrow Press covers. My book was real similar to Hot Water Music, and Iris' book is very similar to The Road to Los Angeles. We had Geoff Melville, this graphic artist, kind of change it around, appropriate it, and make it our own. But you can put those books side by side, and you can see the resemblance. We meant it as an homage, so we had a lot of fun doing that. We probably came out of pocket in that first few months. We didn't really know what we were doing, so we spent most of our money out of our own pocket. Then we kind of discovered the print-on demand thing, and that made it more feasible to do more books. We did print on demand versions of all three books. Iris and myself both have been published writers for over 30 years. Mostly in underground, more marginal type literally circles—but the DIY punk rock stuff, that's where we started back in the 1980. So we knew a lot of people over the years, because we had just been at it for so long. A lot of people just came to us with manuscripts that were really good, and it just started kind of taking on the life of its own. Right away, we realized we were going to publish more than just those books. We didn't know how many we were going to publish, so we kind of just picked a random number out of the air. We said, "Well, we'll do 10 to 15 titles a year."

The press doesn’t pay for anything. It’s a not-for-profit press. The goal of it was never really to make a profit. It was to give a platform to a bunch of writers that we really respect and admire.

We just started lining up the manuscripts. Iris has been friends with Pleasant Gehman for many years, since early days in the Hollywood scene. So Pleasant had a manuscript. Iris and Pleasant had co-wrote a couple of books, as well as individually published books over the years. So it was just a natural to do her book. Dennis Cruz and his wife Annette did that reading with this that inadvertently launched the momentum to make a press. So right away, we wanted to get a manuscript from Dennis and Annette. Jack Grisham, who's an old friend of Iris’, the lead singer of T.S.O.L. has been doing a lot of writing and has kind of transitioned from a punk rock lead singer into a bit of a short story writer and a novelist. So he had a collection, and we put that out that first year. A lot of really good poetry manuscripts came our way from a lot of different places. Carolyn Srygley-Moore from out here in New York, and C. V. Auchterlonie from up in the B. C. Then manuscripts, we got a manuscript from Frank Reardon, a poet out of Boston. We got a really strong manuscript from Rich Ferguson, who is like a musical performer and poet, spoken word artist out to L. A. that me and Iris have known for years. So we were getting all this really quality stuff from people we had known for years of whose work we admired, and that first year, it just started taking a life of its own. We were designing book covers, and editing books constantly. Now, we're three-and-a-half years into it, and we've been pretty constantly at it. Because we have lives where we have to pay rent and stuff. The press doesn't pay for anything. It’s a not-for-profit press. The goal of it was never really to make a profit. It was to give a platform to a bunch of writers that we really respect and admire. We wanted to create a place for writing that we liked, that we thought should be up there on bookshelves in bookstores next to all the stuff that's already there. I mean I've been going to bookstores since I was a kid and hanging out. I published when I was still teenager for the first time. I would go to Baroque Books in Hollywood. The guy that ran it, Red Stodolsky, he had all the stuff from the '50s and '60s in there, and he had all the Black Sparrow titles. He was friends with Bukowski and Wanda Coleman, and he carried their work. You would go in there and be like, "Man, I really hope someday I can write something good enough, so it could be on this bookshelf in Red’s store, and he would tell someone about my writing the way he tells me about other people's writing." So that was kind of always a thing that I've always wanted to be a part of. I didn't really want to publish necessarily for the ego thing or fame, or anything like that. I wanted to publish more, so I could read my writing and see my name up on that bookshelf next to writers that influenced me. I wanted be a part of that. I wanted to kind of have a seat at the table, so to speak. I think Punk Hostage Press, from my perspective, it's kind of like I’m finally claiming that seat at the table after years of being a real marginalized writer. I'm kind of finally coming more into the community of writers and taking a place. Most of my writing career, I didn't really go to readings, unless I was the feature. I didn't really go to open readings much at all. I didn't really have that camaraderie with other writers. I would meet writers in my travels, but it wasn't like the main thing that I did. I just didn't really claim my place in the community, and I guess that's what Punk Hostage Press has been for me in a lot of ways. Because Iris did do that. Iris was a really big part of the literary scene in Los Angeles. Still is, obviously. I was more removed by my own design. I really didn't participate the way most other writers would, because I wasn't really trying to have a career. I was just trying to write. Part of writing is sharing it, and I understood that, but it wasn't easy for me to get up in front of people. I could never do how a lot of people do it. Like I could never go every week to the same reading. I just could never do that. There were plenty of them that I would drop in on occasion, especially if I was asked to read. First of all, I never stayed in one place too much. Second of all, I spent a lot of time just out on the street or locked up in prison. So that made it difficult to really be a part of any literary scene, or anything like that.

On the Importance of Live Readings

That first reading that we did before we had even really made a commitment to do a press, it was like December 8, 2011, at Beyond Baroque. It was me and Iris, and Dennis Cruz and Annette Cruz, and S. A. Griffin was the host and kind of master of ceremonies, and then Danny Baker who was this new writer that we were kind of introducing to the world. It was his first reading ever. He had been writing for a while, but he had never gotten up and read it. He had lived in the Venice area for a while. Beyond Baroque, when I was a kid hanging out in Venice, it was like this place where you could just walk in and there were all these amazing writers like Bob Flanagan and Wanda Coleman and Michelle Clinton and Philomene Long and Frank T. Rios. Just all these amazing writers that had really carved a place in the literary world, especially in L.A., and they were just hanging out there. They were doing workshops and they were doing readings. So that was inspiring. That place has always been like kind of a sacred ground type place for me. To go back there and do readings has always been amazing. But that night was a particularly electrifying reading. From that moment on, we were just kind of like,

“Yeah, we want all the readings that we do as a press to be like that reading. We want the audience to feel something for being there. We want the people that are showing up to read their work to really feel like they came and did something important with their writing."

Most of the book sales have come from authors going out and reading in public and selling their books themselves. Because me and Iris were writers for so long, and we have been published on another presses, we came up with what we feel is really an awesome offering for the people that we published, where they get to buy their copies of the books at cost. We don't charge them anything, and we encourage them to do that. We encourage them to invest in their books. We make the price as low as possible, so they can have as many books as possible. So they can go out and do readings and share their work in that way.

We put stuff out there. We work really hard at it. Maybe because I'm older, I don't feel the Internet is the vital place where we connect with people. My experience with literature is that homeless kid in the bookstore, or being in prison and getting out of your cell to go to the little closet where they keep all the books to pick one or two books that you can have in your cell. My experience with it is you’ve got to touch the book. I've bought some books online, but there's just nothing like going to a bookstore and touching the book. Beyond that, the ultimate is to go see the writer read his work, and really determine that, "I resonate with this work. This is good work. I want this at my house. I want to be able to reflect on this from time to time. I'm going to buy this book, and buy it from the writer to support the writer directly, and get the writer to sign the copy.” Have it be a real personal experience. I just don't think that there's any way you can better that experience in literature. There's just nothing better than hearing the work off the page by the person who wrote it, and then making that determination, "Yeah, this is a book I really want. This is a book I'm going to love."

On His Facebook Poetry

Because it’s like I can’t live in the cave forever.

I don’t understand Facebook, and I'm still trying to figure it out. Kind of like that old Buddhist philosophy, with a still pond nothing's happening. But if you throw a pebble in, you create a ripple. And If other people are throwing pebbles in, and then the ripples overlap, and there's connectivity. So I can't even tell you really why I'm on Facebook, or Google+, or Twitter, or Instagram. I don't know. I just do what the kids tell me. Alexandra Naughton is one of our writers, and she has taught me a lot about social media. I learned from the younger writers what they're doing. Steve Roggenbuck is a writer that I've read with a couple of times. I respect his work. I just watch what these younger writers are doing. The book I just edited, that we just put out recently, Maisha Z. Johnson's No Parachutes to Carry Me Home, is an amazing book. I'm working really hard right now to do research, because I'm very reticent to submit to the Pushcart Prize, because I don't really understand it. It just seems like everybody can run around and be like, "I'm nominated for a Pushcart Prize" I looked into it, and it's like, yeah, because anyone who says they're a publisher, like myself, I could just nominate anybody, really. I'm not saying that that makes it a bad prize. I'm just saying I don't understand it. So I haven't nominated anybody. As a press, we have yet to nominate anyone to the Pushcart. But we are looking. I do want to learn. Because we put out some really quality books, and I'd like to put the books more in front of people that might determine their quality, and award it. Because it's like I can't live in the cave forever. I work really hard with Punk Hostage Press to be more open and to think in terms of like using social media, and reaching out to different communities. That's really important to us. We don't have any particular favorite. I mean, we have writers that we have closer relationships over the years than others. We're kind of like DIY, go-anywhere-do-anything type press. We’re definitely outside of the bubble that academia has created around writing. That's just how I feel about it. I guess that sounds like I'm critical of academia. But again, it's another thing I don't really understand. I don't understand what academia has done with American literature. I just don't understand what they've done with it. I see where they've tried to create opportunities for more diverse voices on the one hand, which I think is important. I also feel like they've kind of created a quagmire for publishing. I'm not saying that we're going to do anything to counter that. It's a Goliath. It's huge. But I think if we keep putting out books of the quality that we've been putting out, we can at least be there. We're at the AWP the last couple of years, and we're making a little bit of noise. We're kind of poking back at the academics a little bit. Not to put them down, but just to let them know that I don't think everybody has to get an MFA. We published some writers with MFAs. But I don't think that should be the only route. I think it's a sad day in American literature when there's a singular path, and that’s the only path that’s stressed or encouraged. I guess a big thing that we're trying to do is show that you can make your own way. You could be a writer. You could learn from just reading and engaging with other writers. You don't have to be ordained. You definitely shouldn't have to go into debt, fucking take out a bunch of student loans that you'll be paying off the rest of your life. I don't know, I guess we're a little bit of a voice in the wilderness, an alternative principle.

On Sharing Work

... there’s a whole fucking world out there that thinks poetry is dead because poets aren’t fucking making it alive enough for them. I’m responsible for that as well. I’m just trying to be accountable for my part and get it out there in the public more, and teach my kids and my grandkids what it’s about.

I feel that I see a lot of people being very regional. I'm not even saying I'm right, but my sense is that, again, academia kind of encourages that regionality now. My institutional analogy that I could apply to it is the last time I went to prison, they gave me the option to shave a bunch of years off my sentence by going into a drug treatment program. So drug treatment programs are very similar to each other. Most of them are off of this one model called the therapeutic community, and they concentrate on behavior modification. It's kind of similar to what I see with institutional academia around literature. I see this one creative workshop style model that everybody's using and implementing. What it does is it just encourages people to engage in that model and become dependent on it. That, they kind of tell you, is what you need to do. You need to learn this model, so you can be part of the implementation of it. Now, it's gotten really top heavy, so they're fucking over all these young writers who are adjuncts. They promise them publishing, but it becomes just kind of an extension of the high school popularity thing. Only one kid gets elected student body president every year. That means only one person out of your academic world is going to have a top selling book, and the rest of you are just going to have books that are going to be in the bookstore at the institution that you're at. Unless you really break out and promote yourself, that's it. You got books published, but nobody's fucking reading them. So that's a sad thing to teach people. My experience is I published 11 chapbooks with a press out of Southern California from ‘85 to ‘95. The guy that published them [Drew Bailey] was HIV positive, and he was fighting the symptoms of AIDS, and he was fighting for his life, and he was homebound a lot. So he had a lot of time to correspond with people, and he built his press around that. He sent letters back right away and he corresponded. He set up readings for me, and he got me published in journals and reviews, because he dedicated his fucking life. Drew Blood Press, that was that guy's life. I would've never been a published writer if it wasn't for him and that sacrifice that he made. That was the example that I follow. My thing is, I just want to pass that on. If you want to write and be a writer, the school thing is a cool route to go, and of course the MFA programs are going to say you should publish. Go big or go home. Go far as you can with it. Get your book out there. Let people know that you've got something to share, and take the feedback. If people aren't necessarily into what you're sharing, figure out how you can share better. Sharing is important as a writer. The reality is there's no writer that we know about that doesn’t do that—save for the case of one, Robert Lax, that was like a complete hermit. Bukowski kind of has this romanticized ideal that he was just always drunk and always alone, but that's not really true. I mean, if you just talk to Neeli Cherkovski, who was like his best friend for many years, Neeli will tell you that's not how it was. He actually paced himself, because getting too drunk incapacitated his writing ability, and writing was what kept that guy alive. So sharing it was important. He didn't do a lot of readings, but that guy relentlessly submitted like every week. He worked for the post office before he was discovered as a writer, and that meant that he was mailing out submissions relentlessly every day—like always had something in the mail going to somebody. That’s the thing. A lot of people that write. But if you want to be a writer, and that's what you want to do, and that's what you want to feel you are, you’ve got to share it. You’ve got to let people know that's what you're doing. It's got to really come from within you. I see a lot of young writers that are talented with a lot of desire. I don't know if they're just not getting the encouragement. That's my problem with academia. And AWP is just kind of this enclosed bubble, where everybody's sharing with each other, but there's a whole fucking world out there that thinks poetry is dead because poets aren't fucking making it alive enough for them. I'm responsible for that as well. I'm just trying to be accountable for my part and get it out there in the public more, and teach my kids and my grandkids what it's about.

On Being Homeless

There are things that trigger other people who have trauma issues sometimes, so my writing is definitely not for everybody in that respect. But still, I’ve got to tell my story, and I encourage every writer to tell their story

I lived in a squat on 9th and Avenue C [in NYC] that was called C-Squat. It's still a squat, but the front of it has been turned into a museum. I heard that had happened, but I didn't really know what it looked like until I went there the other day and saw it. It was just weird, because that was an abandoned building that was burned out. I actually was there helping drag charred lumber and buckets of soot and stuff out of it, and I actually swung hammers to help build the first staircase, and I lived in there for a while. That was back in the '80s. It's traumatizing to be homeless. No one really wants to be homeless. But I made a decision at an early age to be homeless, rather than to be in a situation that felt unsafe. So I chose an unsafe situation to get out of the situation that I felt unsafe in. That's kind of what homeless people in my experience do, as they're just trying to choose the lesser of two evils, and the freer of two imprisonments. There is a certain amount of freedom that you get as being homeless, but you're also really contained by the fact that we are shackled by poverty, and you're completely disenfranchised by the system, and most people look down on you, and the police have no problems abusing you because they know you don't have the resources to do a lot about it. So it's not the greatest experience. It's traumatizing. A lot of what I write about is I’ve endured a lifetime of trauma. I went out to the street when I was teenager, I got in trouble with the cops when I was teenager, and I've been mixing it up that way ever since. A lot of it is based on my belief systems. At heart, I'm an anti-hierarchical anarchist, and I've been that way since I was a youngster. It's not a popular belief system. Even very liberal people are uncomfortable with someone saying that maybe singular leadership is not the way to go. People kind of like to have their heroes, and they kind of like to put people on pedestals, and I don't like that. I like doing things by committee or by group. Punk Hostage Press, me and Iris started it, so we're in charge of it, but more as stewards rather than as executives. I mean, there are resources that we have to offer our writers, and we try to be stewards of those resources. Really it's up to the writers to make their experience happen. So I believe in that shit. Those are the kind of communities that I gravitate toward and I resonate with, are the communities of people where there's not some big boss telling everybody how it's going to be. You know, I've been in prison. I was part of a prison gang where there was a hierarchal structure, and your life depended on how you fit into that structure. Outside of that, I don't believe in participating that way. I mean, I've lived on the street and I participated in the black market, and I refuse to be a part of anyone's gang or cartel or anything like that. I had to deal with those people to make money to survive, but it's not a part of how I've lived my life. I’ve lived it that way in the face of people that are against that believe system, and it's been traumatizing. I've had my ass handed to me a few times. People have tried to kill me. That's my experience. That's in my writing. I can't not write about that. Sometimes people have told me that they feel my writing’s a little heavy; it's a little violent. There are things that trigger other people who have trauma issues sometimes, so my writing is definitely not for everybody in that respect. But still, I’ve got to tell my story, and I encourage every writer to tell their story—especially around trauma. The other thing is that a year after we started Punk Hostage Press, we started the nonprofit organization Words As Works. The whole purpose of that is me and Iris acknowledged that it's not just like, "Oh, it's so cool that we’re writers." No, that fucking kept us alive all these years, where many of our friends have died because they didn't have something to hold on to in a dark moment. We had our writing, and so far it's worked, and gotten us this far. We know how important and vital writing is to people who are going through a dark night of the soul, or whatever you want to call it. So we know how healing it can be. We just started Words As Works, so we could share what it's been for us with people who are in situations, who are in homeless shelters, who are in women's shelters because of domestic violence, who are in juvenile hall, who are in prison, who are in jail. There's a lot of people that could benefit from just writing their story. It's just that simple. Writing your story out. It could be the difference between you continuing to go down a blind alley, and maybe coming to some type of place where you can empower yourself. That's the greatest thing about writing. It's one of the most awesome empowerment tools there is. Even if you're not completely literate, you don't have to be fucking literate. Especially nowadays in this weird truncated text lingo world, you can completely misspell and just get it down, just write it. I do a lot of groups in homeless shelters and jails, and places like that. I just get them to get it out on the page, write whatever. If they don’t know the word or how to spell it, put some stick figures down. Just communicate it so you can look down at the paper and you can see how you feel. 

On Experimenting with Different Media

We've already published a couple of books. Jack Grisham's collection of short stories has illustrations in it. I shot a short film around one of my poems. I mean, there's a lot that we haven't done that we still want to do. Iris continues to do music. She does a lot of her readings with musical accompaniment. We're a multimedia approach. I mean, that was kind of how it was back in the days. When I walked into the Masque as a young teenager, which was a club off Hollywood Boulevard where I saw my first Punk/New Wave Show, what struck me about it was the power of people just being creative, trying anything, throwing it against the wall. I like that analogy. I learned how to cook pasta when I was younger from my mom. I was born here in Brooklyn, and she learned how to cook pasta out here. She wasn't from here. She's from the Southwest, from New Mexico. But she learned how to cook pasta out here, and she taught me as a kid that you’ve got to throw a little piece of it against the wall, see if it sticks, and then you know it's al dente. It's right. So that's just kind of my philosophy about art and expression.  You’ve got to throw it against the wall. If it don't stick and it falls to the floor, it ain't ready. But if it sticks, then you know you’ve got something. That's just the process that you’ve got to honor. Every writer that's mentored me, from Wanda Coleman to Luis Rodriguez, S. A. Griffin to Neeli Cherkovski, Michelle Clinton—there's just been so many writers, and every one of them has stressed the process. I was out here in the '80s when Paul Beatty moved out here from L. A., and we did a reading at the Nuyorican Cafe together, and that dude was just so on point and cool about everything, because he was just like, “Yeah, this doesn't really matter right now, because I haven't written the thing that I know I'm supposed to write yet. It could be like 10, 20 years before I write it. Now his latest book is just so fucking amazing. When I think about what he said back then to me, it's just like, "Yeah, I picked something up out of that." Like it was meaningful to me to hear that because I got it. The shit I’m doing right now, I’ve just got to do it for right now. This might not be my best shit. I'll never know if I had stop my process. It's just important to not stop your process. It's just important to keep working it. Keep throwing the pasta against the wall and see what sticks. That's just something I really believe in. I mean, I wouldn't be alive without the process that got me here. That's what my writing reflects, and that's what our work as a press reflects. It's the foundation for everything we do at Punk Hostage or Words As Works. It's just like we emphasize that there's got to be this process, and we're always being teachable. That Buddhist philosophy: always remain teachable. Because we don't have to. You can really fuck things up in this world by thinking you're right about one thing, and thinking that makes you right about everything. That's something I learned early on in life. I know there's a couple of things I'm right about, but I know I'm not right about everything. You’ve got to think that through, and that's why you’ve got the page and the pen, or the computer, or the phone. Whatever you write on, that's why you’ve got it—because you can write it. That's why there's Facebook. Really, for me, I can just throw shit out there. If people don't respond to it, that doesn't mean it's not good. It just means I need to write something else.

Interview by Christian Niedan
Nomadic Press
Niedan is a New York City-based writer and television producer. He is the creator and manager of a film website called Camera In The Sun, which looks at how people think of the places and cultures they see on screen.