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Published on January 31st, 2013 | by Alicia Coombes


Interview with Poet erica lewis

erica lewisPoet erica lewis’ third publication, murmur in the inventory, was released this month. murmur in the inventory is lewis’ first published book project that isn’t part of a collaboration with an artist and does not contain a visual arts pairing, letting the poetry stand alone in a way that it has not before.

A graduate of Northwestern University and Mills College, her work has appeared in various journals and anthologies. Books include precipice of jupiter and camera obscura, both featuring original artwork by her husband, Mark Stephen Finein.

Originally from Cincinnati, lewis now lives in San Francisco where she works as a fine arts publicist by day. This means that lewis spends most of her time showcasing the work of other artists; in fact, most people who know her in a professional capacity do not know she is a talented artist herself.

lewis took the time to speak with Art Animal about her creative process, her double life and the meaning behind her work.

Art Animal: How would you describe your work to someone who is not well-versed in poetry?
erica lewis: I would say that my work is an ongoing examination about how we relate to one another and how we relate to ourselves — how we see ourselves as individuals and collective beings, and how we view the world inside and outside of the box that we put it in.

I’m a big believer in art that makes you feel something.

A lot of my work has to deal with memory and the past, and how we grapple with the things we cannot change in order to move forward. Maybe I’m just trying to work out some unresolved issues that I have with growing up and being an adult. But I think it’s good to put all that out there; maybe others will get something out of it. That’s what I always hope for with my work; that it makes people feel something. I’m a big believer in art that makes you feel something. I did a reading in Berkeley recently and someone came up to me and said, “Your poems sucker-punched my soul in the face.” That was the best compliment ever. People think they’re going to get one thing from me and then they get something entirely different. I love it. I think that’s a big part of my work as well; you get something entirely different than what you were expecting. To hell with pre-conceived notions of poetry.

Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis' camera obscura

Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis’ camera obscura

I don’t write traditional verse. I’ve heard what I do called, “West Coast avant garde.” Some of my projects involve visual art alongside the text. Most of my poems have non-traditional formatting on the page. It might not all be immediately easily accessible, but I think there is a way into it for everyone. It used to be a lot more academic, a lot more experimental, but formal in its experimentation. Now, I’m writing stuff that’s a little more conversational, or at least the conversation isn’t so internal or one-sided as it once was.

AA: When did you start writing?  Were you encouraged by anyone in particular?
el: I started writing when I was very young. I always kept journals and notebooks; as far back as I can remember I always had this affinity for and fascination with language. I loved books. When I would get in trouble as a child, as punishment I would get sent to my room, or wasn’t allowed to play outside or couldn’t watch television. My mother thought that she was punishing me, but I was completely fine with it. I would just go read a book or write. So thanks, mom. Actually, she caught on. When she figured out what was going on, it was the funniest thing because she was pretty much like, “What do I do now? Take away her books?” God bless my mom. She’s always just let me be me. I would say she was my earliest inspiration and mentor.

God bless my mom. She’s always just let me be me. I would say she was my earliest inspiration and mentor.

My father wrote poetry with a capital “p.” He considered himself a writer, but he didn’t inspire me. He wrote poems for special occasions, weddings, funerals, big life events. He was the go-to guy for a poem. But people looked up to him. So maybe it was inspiring to see that. But really, I just remember this love affair I’ve always had with the written word. I got books instead of toys. Going to the bookstore was the best thing in the world. My mom always brought books home to me, always read to me when I was young. I always thought I would have a meaningful relationship with them.

I have always looked up to writers, living and dead. Reading the collected works of Langston Hughes was pivotal for me. My English professor at Northwestern, Larry Evans, made me want to have a deeper understanding of writers and writing, specifically British writers – I discovered [T.S.] Eliot and [Ezra] Pound through him. There are some San Francisco writers that I consider to be mentors – Susan Gevirtz and Norma Cole have been amazing mentors for me, really supportive and generous; they are just really creative women who have been working at their craft for a long time, and who continue to be relevant and creative. That’s inspiring to me. I want to be like them when I grow up.

Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis' camera obscura

Art by Mark Stephen Finein from erica lewis’ camera obscura

AA: In 2009, you were voted “Best Theater PR Person” by the SF Weekly. How does your work as a publicist affect your personal, creative endeavors?
el: The short answer is that it really doesn’t. I try to keep my work life and my creative life entirely separate. Most people in my creative life don’t really know what I do for a living, and most people in my work life have no idea that I have an active creative life.

Unless you know me really well, you don’t know that I am an artist, that I’m not just someone who participates in the enabling of art for others. The biggest thing for me has been maintaining that balance and separation. It’s almost like having to be two different people.

It’s hard to switch from one mode to another. I don’t get out nearly as much as I would like to for art and poetry events. I am way behind on my personal reading list (the stack of unread books on my nightstand is reaching scary heights). Sometimes I’m just too mentally and physically drained from my day job to even think about writing. But not mixing the two has been my way of maintaining a sort of balance between what I do for money and being an artist. I am very guarded about that line and maintaining a separation between work and art.

AA: How would you describe the tone of your current book? How does it differ from your previously published work?
el: I think all of my projects are meditative. I tend to work with larger themes and concepts and break them down, distill them, slowly turn the screw.

How do you know you’re still there? How do you survive when you’ve already disappeared?

My current book, murmur in the inventory, is essentially about fragmentation, being haunted, and how sometimes you are your own ghost. There are 75 poems written in different “voices” throughout five sections; it is the first published book project that I have written that does not contain a visual art collaboration — a departure that, I think, has yielded some interesting textual results. murmur is the book that I started writing when I quit my job a few years ago, so it is very reflective in the sense that it asks, when everything you’ve known has been stripped away — when the thing that you thought was your identity is no longer how you can define yourself — then who are you? How do you know you’re still there? How do you survive when you’ve already disappeared? It was a very strange, difficult time in my life and I thought about these things a lot. I still do. I read poems from this book now and I’m immediately taken back to that time. And it’s so surreal. And humbling. Because things are so different now. I’m so different now.

AA: You have done a lot of work in collaboration with other artists. Do you find the process of collaboration particularly suited to your style?
el: I have done three collaborations with a visual artist (Mark Stephen Finein) but I’ve also worked in collaboration with other poets (Ariel Goldberg and Dan Thomas-Glass). I think collaboration is definitely suited to poetry as a form.

While I have done collaborations, I don’t think that collaboration particularly suits my style as a writer. I am very process-based and very specific in the way that I write and work within my process to put the pieces together; it is very much a solo process. I’m sort of enjoying that solo process right now, actually. The visual collaborations with Mark happened very unexpectedly and very organically. With camera obscura, I used photos of his art that I found in a box in our apartment. They were photos of paintings, lithographs, woodcuts and drawings. He gave me permission to use what I wanted and did not participate in the placement of the art with the text, although he did read each art/text hybrid once it was written and give feedback.

For the precipice of jupiter, all of the accompanying artwork was created for the project. The text was written first, and then the images were produced specifically for each respective text, more or less as reactions to the work. The images are a manifestation of the text, and in a way, they are abstractly enacting the text, or are the action to the text; they provide the visual “motion” in this series, as each piece has a specific visual “direction” to the text as well as the image. Not only are the right and left side of the main text in conversation with one another, but they are also in a multi-layered conversation with the accompanying image. Mark read each piece first and then created each of the images by hand.

AA: Do you have a personal piece that you would call your favorite? Why?
el: There are different pieces that I am drawn to for different reasons at different times. But right now I am really drawn to a particular piece in murmur in the inventory, in the fifth and final section, that just sort of sums up everything the book is about to me. It’s a piece about being damaged and learning how to see things as they really are and learning how to fix yourself. How memory or loss bores holes into you. And what you can do to move on from that.

What gets me about the piece is that I remember exactly when I first started to write it. And I am probably drawn to it right now for many of the same reasons as when I initially wrote it. I was on an airplane leaving Cincinnati after a particularly emotionally traumatic trip home to take care of my mother, who was very ill, and there was all of this language about saving yourself and others and safety; you know, the things they have to say on planes before they take off. I was in a very disoriented headspace, processing everything that had happened in Cincinnati and also trying to orient myself to get back to my “real” life in San Francisco. So I was processing this language that I was confronted with in a very strange way. I sort of mashed it all together and this piece is the result of everything that happened to me on that trip. It speaks to the heart of what this book is really about for me, and the more that I read the piece, the more I realize that.

Join erica lewis for upcoming readings of her work at A New Cadence on February 16 in Santa Cruz, California and at Studio One in Oakland, California on May 5.

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About the Author

Alicia Coombes is a dramaturg, director and writer. Growing up in rural Oklahoma as an outsider with a flair for the dramatic, she wasn’t exposed to very much art or theatre outside of rodeos and Halloween Hell Houses. Luckily as a teenager her family returned to the Bay Area and she quickly immersed herself in more arts and culture than she had imagined was possible. She still has a particular soft spot for the dramatic (and clowns, perhaps from the rodeo days). She graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Theatre with an emphasis in Dramaturgy. She was Aurora Theatre Company’s Literary Manager and Artistic Assistant for four seasons and served as resident dramaturg for the 2011-2012 Season. She has worked in many aspects of the theatre with several other Bay Area companies including Crowded Fire Theater, Marin Theatre Company, Z Space/Word for Word, Golden Thread, Woman’s Will, and CalShakes and is currently the Company Manager for San Francisco’s foolsFURY Theater.

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