Interview with Rick Lupert, author of "I am not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii"

      I have not, as many other people have, and with the exception of a weekend in Ventura, and a round trip drive to Sacramento, CA to pick up our newest feline overlord (both done in 2020),  traveled since before the pandemic. The news media is chock full of stories of people behaving badly, especially on planes, and even as we speak, several major airlines continue to cancel hundreds of already booked flights due to an employee shortage. 

      This of course, along with financial constraints (money comes and goes, more going than coming), are the reasons, for which I personally have put off any travel plans. That doesn’t mean I can’t travel in other ways, including my favorite way; reading books.  

     I’ve always appreciated Rick Lupert’s travel volumes, from We Put Things in Our Mouths ( © 2009 Ain’t Got No Press), to Hunka Hunka Howdy ( © 2019 Ain’t Got No Press). Lupert, publisher of Poetry Super Highway, a global weekly publication that features poets from around the world, has long been a supporter of travel writing, especially poetry. His new chapbook, I am not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii, ( © 2022 Ain’t Got No Press), is his book of post-pandemic (nearly, we’re not done yet folks) poetry. It offers a first person account of the Luperts (RIck, Addie, and their son, Jude’s), vacation as a family to Hawaii, a perennial favorite travel destination, in particular, for Americans who aren’t comfortable traveling beyond the borders of their own country. Per Lupert, I am not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii contains all his enjoyable classic tropes; humor, in the moment first person vignettes, and sharp social commentary. I found myself returning, and savoring, many of the poems in Lupert’s new volume, and of course, laughing at many of his humorous observations. When done, I felt like I’d taken a vacation along with Lupert and his family, which is to me, the mark of a successful book, one that effects positive change. 

    My thanks to Rick Lupert, who graciously agreed to an interview. And you can purchase I am not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii, here.

How is I am not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii different from the preceding books?

     The main difference is it’s the first book in which my son is one of the main characters of the poems. Typically, my wife Addie and I drop our kid off at summer camp and then head off on our adventures. This was the first summer after the pandemic had sort of ended. We hadn’t traveled anywhere in two years and wanted to go somewhere that we felt would be easy. We hadn’t been to Hawaii before and thought it would be a great place and type of destination that we could bring Jude along with us. It was! So my travel books, which are often infused with the moment, funny things that Addie says, now suddenly had a whole other set of funny things being said by Jude. Otherwise it’s very much in the vein of my previous travel books .

Does your son read your poetry, and if so, how does he feel about it?

     He does! I mean sometimes. It used to be that we would read to him every night…as he got older that practice waned a bit…probably the last book I read to him was the original manuscript for I Am Not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii. I think he was especially excited about it because he was so much a part of the experience which led to the poems in it. So he seems to feel pretty good about my poetry, or at least that’s what he tells me. Who knows what’s really in the mind of a thirteen year old?

How did the pandemic reshape your view of the world as a poet, and your travel poetry?

     It used to be that we poets would only attend poetry readings in our own local communities. When the pandemic started…in particular when the quarantine began in early 2019, technologies such as Zoom suddenly had a light shone on them which led to an explosion of virtual readings. I started up the Cobalt Poets series again, for example, as a Zoom series, six years after the venue closed. I was excited to welcome back a couple decades worth of people who had been to the Cobalt at one point or another into this new, virtual space, and was amazed at how quickly it attracted participants from all over the world. We, almost every week, have multiple continents represented both as readers and audience members. If I went back to an in-person series I would lose most of the current community of Cobalt participants. The pandemic caused me to realize that I wasn’t just part of a Los Angeles community of poets, but rather a global one and that is a gift.

     My travel poetry has always been about the actual in-the moment, on-the-ground experiences of being wherever we are. It’s not written after the fact. It attempts to shine a light on the big and tiny details of the trip. Traveling during the pandemic meant some details of what that was like would invariably show up in the poems. I just did a search in the manuscript for I am not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii and there are references to “masks” appearing on seven different pages. Whatever the mundane is, it’s bound to be portrayed as spectacular by me in my work.

A great deal of your poems involve your role as a husband/father. How do these roles infor/influence you as a poet?

     My friend the stunning poet and former Led Zeppelin confidant Elizabeth Iannaci once said to me during a time she was struggling with writer’s block: you just document your life in your poems. She definitely has my number. Just as wearing masks in Hawaii was a part of my experience there that invariably showed up in my poems, being a husband and father, is a huge part of who I am as a person. The truth is almost every poem I’ve ever written is for Addie. You’ll note every one of my books is dedicated to her. I think the poet G. Murray Thomas wrote in a review of one of my earlier travel books (I’m paraphrasing) that amidst its quirkiness and humor, it was really all one long love poem to Addie. I hope when people read these travel books, they enjoy the pieces on their own, but appreciate the throughlines and recurring imagery and themes from poem to poem, and realize the entire book has something to do with itself, if that makes sense.

     I also write a weekly Torah portion poem in which I try to provide modern and personal context to this ancient text. My son Jude has shown up in many of these poems since he’s been around because he’s so much a part of my modern experience as a human being.

What is your favorite poem, and your least favorite poems in I am not Writing a Book of Poems in Hawaii, and why (for each)?

     Ooh… this is a tough one. I have a hard time picking favorites in almost any category. (Though I fairly consistently name watermelon as my favorite food and am really leaning towards orange as my favorite color. I’m pretty good at entertaining myself so when I read through these poems at the beginning of the editing process for the new book, months after they were written, I found myself laughing out loud quite a bit. (It’s a frequent occurrence where Addie will catch me smiling and she’ll ask me something like what did you just think of that you think is hilarious.) So there’s a lot I like in the book and it’s hard to pull out a favorite…but one that comes to mind is “Parenting Lessons From the Holy One”, as it’s the one that I happened to write for that week’s Torah portion during the week before we left for Hawaii, when I’d already started to write the book. My travel poetry, my poetry in general, and my Jewish poetry often live separate lives, so it was cool to have all of those poetic worlds collide in one poem.

     As for least favorite, maybe the very last one which states it wishes it wasn’t the last poem in the book. I almost replace that with a poem I wrote a year after the trip while putting the book together which would have said something like “I guess I did write a book of poems in Hawaii after all.” That would have been funny, but since I’m fairly strict about the travel books being just the poems written during, as well as to and from, the trips themselves, it didn’t feel right to replace the last actual poem of the experience with one written a year later. I don’t like vacations to end… there’s something amazing about being away from my everyday element with only the responsibility to feed myself every day… so there’s a tangible nostalgia as the travel books start to end, as I’m hyper-aware that the trip is ending and it will be back to the normal grind again. Who likes that?

You’re well known for incorporating humor into your poetry. What led you to including this, and why?

     My most formative years as a young person were infused with the humor of Douglas Adams and Monty Python. I think they led me to being what I call a student of comedy. That sensibility naturally (and often inappropriately) comes out in almost everything I do or say. So I’m not sure it was a conscious choice to incorporate it into my poetry…I just don’t know any other way. And possibly I just can’t help myself. The poet Hope Alvarado once commented on one of the poems in my first set of Torah portion poems that she wished I didn’t interrupt the poem with every distracting (which I read as funny, thing I thought of. She was, I think, implying, these asides sometimes distracted her from the poem itself. I see that and think about it almost every time I write a poem, but I really just can’t help myself. I also think, as an audience member or reader, people love humor and it can often be a gateway into heavier or more serious topics, or even the whole genre of poetry itself for people who may not find it accessible. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to a funeral where there wasn’t laughter.

Hawaii has the unique role, as many other island destinations, of being both Americanized and maintaining its autonomy. How do you feel about that, and in your opinion, why is this - good/bad thing?

     I think the unique nature of being an island quite a distance from the main-land explains the autonomy. It’s one of the only places in America where the indigenous people’s culture thrives and is celebrated. I think that’s amazing and wish more of America had a similar respect and celebratory response to all native and indigenous people’s whose culture struggles to survive at all. Recently I was at an event at Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center here in L.A. (Or Venice actually for people who like to pin their maps exactly… see, another aside… I couldn’t help myself.) Beyond Baroque’s director, Quentin Ring, began the event by acknowledging the indigenous people whose land the building itself sat on. I learned later this is becoming more and more common at institutions all over the country. Just these words of acknowledgment are the smallest, long overdue step towards real reparation for what was done. Hawaii has a similar story but the unique tropical nature of the destination allowed, to some extent, the Hawaiian culture and people to continue to thrive, even despite the Americanization.

In your poem “Tourist”, you say you “embrace your tourist identity” (love that line, btw), but wouldn’t this be, in reality, the identity of all poets? Why/why not?

     Absolutely. But in this case it’s a dual meaning. As a poet, I certainly embrace my identity as a constant stranger in a strange land, often too busy assessing experiences rather than having them. It’s a curse. But in the case of this particular poem, tourist refers to anyone who has traveled to a place to see its sites. I think there is sometimes a sensibility among some travelers to avoid “touristy” places… Hawaii is one of the most visited places in the world. You almost don’t get more touristy than that. Niagara Falls, The Grand Canyon, The Empire State Building, The St. Louis Arch, The Golden Gate Bridge, Hollywood… There is a reason why these places are spectacular and worth visiting, regardless of how touristy they might be. Many of them have a palpable magic. So, in this poem (and in this experience overall) I embraced my identity as a visitor of places there are to visit and see which applies to anyone who does so, regardless of whether they’re also cursed to be a poet extra-assessing the experience.

What happened to the lost poems you mentioned in your poem “Are You Reading This?”

     This is sort of a mundane technical answer… I’m actually not one hundred percent sure I lost any poems…but I write them all in the word processing app on my phone… Then at night I switch over to my laptop to make sure I can read what I typed. (Does anyone else have that problem where you sometimes can’t read your own typing?) For that to work it relies on the cloud working. Meaning what I’ve typed on my phone has successfully uploaded and is in sync with that document on the laptop. If I open up the document on my laptop before the internet has done its thing and the document has updated, it might lead to the documents being out of sync, or the not complete document on my laptop overwriting the one from the phone. (meaning some of what I wrote might have disappeared.) I actually don’t think it happened, but just in case, the poem “Are You Reading This” is there in case people spot my potentially missing poems in their cloud. Please return them. Reward offered.

Where do you plan to travel next, and what kind of poems will you be writing?

     I think we may go to Scotland next summer, but nothing has been booked yet. I’ve been excited about the television show Outlander which is really a sappy love story, but they throw in time travel every now and then to keep me watching. A lot of that show takes place in Scotland so it’ll be fun to go there and pretend like I’m an expert in Scotland culture because I’ve watched that show. Look, I’m not promising that I’m going to Scotland. (Sorry, Ohio poet Karen Scott who is a big fan of everything Scottish.) But it’s possible.

     I will tell you that I’ve actually already traveled this summer. Addie and I went to Savannah Georgia, Charleston, South Carolina, and Asheville and Charlotte, North Carolina. A brand new travel book was written and is sitting on my phone waiting for me to turn my attention to it sometime in the spring of 2023. It will be called The Low Country Shvitz. More on that next year.

     As for what kind of poems I wrote in the south, or what kind of poems I’ll write in Scotland, I guarantee you they will document the experience of being in those places. They will have many words of varying lengths in them. My goal is for there to be 3% fewer typos than in all previous books. Some will find some of these poems funny. Others will not. They will be the kind of poems that sit on pages contained within a book surrounded by thicker paper, commonly referred to as a cover.

     But I may be giving too much away.

© 2022 marie c lecrivain


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