The Kid from Kennewick: An Interview with Kevin Sampsell

by David Moscovich

Kevin Sampsell is the author of the story collection Creamy Bullets (Chiasmus Press) and the editor of Portland Noir (Akashic Press) and The Insomniac Reader (Manic D Press); no stranger to small press publishing, he also runs Future Tense Books, which publishes innovative work from the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere, and works at the legendary Powell’s City of Books in Portland. But the work that could make Kevin Sampsell a household name is his latest, a memoir called A Common Pornography (Harper Perennial, $13.99). Waxing on his hometown of Kennewick, Washington, he touches on events that shaped him, both universal and singular; the sheer lucidity of his prose offers truths that lilt and twist their tiny, brave daggers into the reader. A Common Pornography sticks in the mind like a child shivering in pajamas in front of a burning house.

David Moscovich: How did you go about remembering the episodes you include in A Common Pornography? Photo albums? Early poems? I notice you titled one of the segments in the book “Acid”—did that assist in preserving your memory?

Kevin Sampsell: Ha! I’m not sure that acid would be a good tool for that purpose. I think it can be great for other things, like opening up parts of your mind or having bizarre daydreams you could put in your writing, but probably not for real-life flashbacks. I started writing parts of A Common Pornography about ten years ago, and I was able to access some early memories pretty well. I think it’s easier to remember further back when you’re in your twenties or thirties. I’m into my forties now, so my memory gets a bit hazier. I think most people's earliest memories are from when they’re around five years old. But even those memories fade, and if you asked someone who in their forties or fifties, they might say the earliest memory that they can still recall in their mind is from around ten years old. Either way, I find it shocking when people can remember things from when they were three or four—I have no idea what the heck I was doing when I was that little! As far as jogging my memory goes, I did use some old photos, some interviews with my siblings, and a couple of road trips back to Kennewick, just driving around all day long. I was with a friend on one of these driving around days and we went to my old girlfriend’s house and for some reason I just started crying. I think things like that can only happen when you actually visit a place—it’s a rooted emotion and a reaction that you can’t predict when you revisit things from your past.

DM: What did the death of your father bring you in terms of your own relationship to fatherhood?

KS: I think even before he died I knew my role as a father was not going to resemble my dad’s history at all. His death just made me realize that I want to do as much as I can for Zach before I die someday. I hope he'll remember me as a good dad and speak at my funeral. Only two people spoke at my dad's funeral and even that felt forced.

DM: In so many ways your memoir speaks to a generation of us that grew up on the verge of going permanently insane in the ’80s and ’90s. Stripping down to your boxer shorts in the course of a reading, then running around the block only to return to finish your poems—how have these and other Sampsell stunts kept you sane over the years? For that matter, are you sane?

KS: I think I’m sane. I guess that’s not for me to decide, though. Any kind of stunt that I’ve done is mostly for my own amusement. My girlfriend and I sometimes do these haiku shows under the name Haiku Inferno and that’s very comedy-based stuff. I was part of a reading once where the readers spun a giant wheel and took off articles of clothes depending on the number that came up. I saw my dear friend Reuben read naked in front of seventy-five people in a cramped basement that night. One night, before opening up for Jim Carroll at a Portland reading, I dropped acid and read with my boom-box playing white noise in the background. I felt like I was in the middle of a hurricane. I had crazy good sex that night.

DM: Did you ever talk with Jim Carroll about writing? Can you tell us anything about how you experienced his performance that night?

KS: No, not all. I think I barely met him backstage. He seemed very nervous, almost like he was jonesing for something. And you could tell listening to him read. But he warmed up as he went and I remember feeling really transported by his words. But that may have been the acid. Either way, his show was great.

DM: What is the difference between performing a piece and reading a piece in front of an audience?

KS: Early on in my writing days, I found myself at the center of the Portland poetry slam scene, and that was a lot of fun. But I never memorized my work. I just didn’t have the brainpower to do that. I’d see people going sans paper at the slams and most of the time I felt like it was more theater than poetry. People overdid it and it got schmaltzy. I preferred people who could display a personality with their writing to those who just hammed it up. At the same time, a lot of readings can be boring. There’s a fine line between grating and dull. But I’ve seen a lot of writers entertain an audience. It’s all about how they read it, their delivery and confidence. You can be reading from paper but still performing with your voice.

DM: When did you write your first story in the style that we all now know to be Kevin Sampsell? When did it click for you?

KS: I really think that any style that I’ve been able to develop is partly due to the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing. When I started writing stories in the early ’90s I was also still a beginning reader. My influences were probably outdated and no good. I barely knew where to put quotation marks and commas. I just knew I liked “weird” stuff. It took a long time for me to sense a “click” or feel a comfort. I thought I was doing pretty good stuff, but I was never sure if people would take it seriously. I know I’m doing something pretty good if I can make myself laugh while I’m writing. It’s only in the past couple of years that I even feel comfortable referring to myself as a writer. I always say “I work at a bookstore” first.

DM: How do you describe your writing to people when they ask what genre you write?

KS: I usually say that I mainly write fiction, since that’s what I've written for the most part. If they ask me what it’s about, I’ll say it’s about people and relationships and flawed people in funny situations or old people having sex. Stuff like that. But then I also write some nonfiction—reviews and essays.

DM: Is there anything that people consistently get wrong about you or your work?

KS: The framing of this question suggests that people actually talk about my work. I’m not sure if that’s the case. What do people say about it, I wonder? I guess one thing I hear people say is that I’m prolific and I really don’t think I am. I am very, very slow. And I’m getting slower all the time.

DM: Why is that?

KS: I think I work slowly because I try to get my writing as polished as I can on the first try. I don't think it works for me to crank out something quickly and then spend hours editing it. I don't mind editing, but I prefer the real-time quality of creating something as a tight first draft. As far as editing other people's work, I'm even more sluggish. I am a slow reader, especially of manuscripts.

DM: How did you go about finding authors for The Insomniac Reader?

KS: That was my first attempt at an anthology, and for the most part, I think it worked out well. I’m lucky that I work at Powell’s and happen to know—or be friends of friends with—a lot of great writers. I just sent out an email to about fifty people and waited to see what I got. Initially, I had ten stories too many in the manuscript and it was too huge. I had to be a jerk and tell a bunch of writers that I couldn’t use their work after all. The next couple of times I edited something—the 4.3 issue of Spork Magazineand Portland Noir—I had learned my lesson and knew not to accept too many things right off the bat. I think that issue of Spork is probably the best thing I’ve assembled as an editor. It was great because I could have stories, poems, and art in it. They just let me go crazy with that one.

DM: You've been publishing chapbooks with your Future Tense Books for twenty years now. When you started, what or who were your models for what you wanted to achieve?

KS: I discovered K Records in 1989 after seeing Beat Happening for the first time and it turned me on to the American indie music scene. For most of the late 80s I was into Britpop. American record labels like K and Sub Pop and Slumberland showed me that you could get people excited about artists who I guess you could say were “underground.” In the book world, I was still learning about who was doing what, but I admired Manic D Press and Soft Skull and a bunch of the weird little magazines like Blank Gun Silencer and Shattered Wig Review.

DM: What exactly happened with Tao Lin when you had to cancel his book a couple of years ago?

KS: I had read some of Tao's work and thought it was funny and interesting, so I asked if he wanted to send me some stories to look at. One of them I published in Spork, but the others needed some work. Nothing major at all, just little things. I can't even remember what exactly. Some of it was just commas or his use of flat language. Some of the prose was kind of lifeless and dull. He was just getting out of college at that point and I think his mistrust of other people—like students in his writing workshops—was still pretty fresh in his brain. He had strange suspicions about any suggestion I had and it felt like I had to convince him that I was on his side, that I wanted him to be good or better—but he didn't, or doesn't, believe in "good" or "bad" or "better." I didn't want to put out a book that would essentially be unedited and I got the sense after a while that he was being stubborn on purpose, so I just wanted to put a stop to it and move on. It was hurtful to me that he posted all our emails on his blog, but mostly I didn't comment on the fallout. Since then, we've been friendly and I was happy to see him start his own press. I still think his views or theories on writing are sometimes oppressive. Maybe he needs to eat some meat and get out more.

DM: Is your son Zach also a writer?

KS: He’s gotten more interested in it the last year or so and he’s working on some kind of long story himself. He probably wrote more words than me last year. He’s mostly into manga and horror, but he’s also a big fan of comedians Demetri Martin and Lewis Black. So who knows what the heck he’ll be creating as he gets older. He’ll be sixteen this summer and he’s a great kid. He’ll be in San Francisco with me during my book tour. I think he’s really curious about the writer side of me.

DM: Who is your audience or readership? Who do you write for?

KS: Up until now, I had a sense of my readership being the same kind of folks that might like George Saunders, Richard Brautigan, McSweeney’s, or Penthouse Forum. With this book, I’ve already talked to a bunch of people who have read it and it ranges from people in their twenties to people in their sixties, males and females, straight and gay, and everyone seems to like it quite a bit. It’s very encouraging to me. I think this is a book that is uniquely me, but it’s the kind of book that a lot of people will like. But I don’t really think too much about it when I’m writing. I am trying to create something that will please me first.

DM: Is there anything out there you wish didn't have your name on it? Any publishing regrets?

KS: Oh, sure. Some of those early ’90s chapbooks, which are thankfully quite scarce. But I have a couple of friends that say they even like those! It's funny when you publish stuff at a young age (early twenties for me)—you look back and unless you're really sharp, really refined, it's like growing up in public.

DM: How has growing up in a multi-racial family affected your writing? Have you, like I have, never felt like just another white boy?

KS: Besides growing up with my brother, Matt, who is half-black, I didn’t see many other non-white people around in the Tri-Cities. But I never questioned Matt’s color or felt like he was different from us. When I became a teenager, I got really into soul music and then rap, and Matt was mostly into music from white bands—and he watched hockey! I guess that was kind of weird when you think about it. Sometimes I felt like I was “more black” than my brother. But all in all, I never thought that deeply about being white or having black or Asian relatives. It all felt normal.

DM: What's next for Kevin Sampsell?

KS: I have ambitions to write a novel, but I’ve been so focused on getting everything in line for this book—the editing of it, the tour dates, etc.—that I haven’t been able to think of what’s next yet. Some Future Tense stuff for sure. Zachary Schomburg and Emily Kendal Frey are my favorite Portland poets and I’m doing a book of their collaborations very soon. I hope to have finished copies of that to take on tour with me.

DM: Last question: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Julius Erving?

KS: Julius for sure. He’s the main reason I became a basketball fan as a kid.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010