Behind the Words: Richard Prin

Posted by on Dec 27, 2022 in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Behind the Words: Richard Prin

Rare Soul’s author, Richard Prin, finds oases of nature in the city to craft his writing. There is a duality to Rare Soul that reflects the dual elements of Prin’s daily life; trees, subways, helicopters, apricots, wings, Windex…it’s a fascinating combination of nature vs. a somewhat twisted nurture, with Prin returning to nature throughout: Remember, if I die, to plug me in a/tree.

In the following interview, he tackles both the organic side of creating poetry as well as the necessary “work” that needs to be done. A fluent speaker of Swahili, Prin has an incredibly interesting writing & translation career in the works that shows just how versatile a writer he really is.

Sarina Bosco: Rare Soul is full of so many interesting elements and subjects. There’s an obvious pull toward nature in it – what kind of role has nature played in your life and in your writing?

As a lifelong New Yorker, there is a lot less nature in my daily life than the average human. That may be the reason I have always been drawn to nature as a refuge (though never enough to pull me away from the city). That second sentence “Trees charge me” is quite accurate – I have embraced the “tree-hugger” label ever since it started being thrown my way as a hippie teenager, and I once taught a “class” on the theory and practice of tree-hugging to a few dozen pre-teens. In the period that I wrote “Rare Soul” I was doing a lot of my writing in a shaded grove overlooking the pond in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park (although this particular poem was written on my couch in the middle of the night). So its contrast of the natural and less natural (subway, helicopter, Windex) emerges quite organically from my life experience.

What is your process when you approach a poem?

Incredibly varied. I remember that I wrote “Rare Soul” while watching the Lee Chang-dong film titled, appropriately enough, Poetry. “The apricot throws itself to the ground” was a line spoken in the film. Something clicked, I paused the movie, and “Rare Soul” poured out. I am always looking for ways to write about the “crazies”, the eccentric rare souls I have befriended over the years – so the material was ready to flow, channeled by that image of nature’s forcefulness. Looking back at the document on my computer, I see there were no alternate drafts – no evidence of tinkering, even, though I’m sure I messed around a good deal with ordering, word choice, etc.

Would you describe your poetry as originating more from association/instinct, or deliberate construction?

I suppose my last answer was attempting to address this question, because “Rare Soul” was completely associative and instinctive, sparked by a single phrase. And that’s how I wish the process always happened! But I also write a good deal of formal poetry (mainly pantoums, often found pantoums) which is more painstaking, like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. And other poems wind up going through endless drafts, reimaginings, reorderings, taking years to develop, or sometimes even merging with another poem. I think those are more often the poems that begin with an idea or concept, rather than a phrase – which reminds me of an exchange where the painter Degas marveled that he had so many “ideas” for poems and the poet Mallarme quipped, “But poetry, my dear friend, is made with words, not ideas”. For me, at least, the making of a poem proceeds much more felicitously when it proceeds from “words” rather than “ideas”.

What does your writing space look like?

My desk is in our living room and tends to be the messiest sector thereof. My laptop sits in the center with a What Would Sun Ra Do? sticker on top. On the left side, two poorly-sorted piles of books (notebooks, books I’m meaning to read soon, recently-read books that won’t fit back in the bookcase) and a smaller third pile of Swahili texts I am translating. On the right side, a Coney Island coaster for my caffeinated beverages and a Brooklyn Bridge coaster for water. In the far corner, a pile of old notebooks and folders with several of my six-year-old’s notes to me piled on top – and a few of her artworks taped to the wall. After that, it’s pure bric-a-brac. A dish of spare change, a dish of wires, plugs and batteries dead or alive, a scattering of political pins, paperclips, chapstick, business cards, metro cards, more wires, headphones, postal stamps, cough drops, a can of compressed air, two cups of mostly-defunct pens and unsharpened pencils, sour bunnies, beard oil, a framed family photo – and I could swear I decluttered just a few weeks ago!

The last few sentences of your poem speak to growing older; how would you say your writing has changed as you age?

A surprisingly hard question to answer! Every angle I think of, I also think of an exception. Stylistically, I often worry my work has become less “loud” – but that might just be a selection bias where I remember the loud poems better than the quiet poems. Thematically, I was going to say that my work has become a lot more political since I wrote “Rare Soul” – but my poetry was almost exclusively political in my teens and early 20s, so that gap is probably just a function of regrettable apathy during the Obama years. I write fewer prose poems these days, and a lot more narrative prose (travelogues and personal essays) – but I’ve always been genre-fluid, as evinced by the very fact that we’re looking at a prose poem. So I don’t know if I can identify any evolutionary trajectory so much as patterns that come and go.

Which means those last lines hit me on a personal level more than an artistic level. I can still feel a lot of that tension – saying I don’t want to “be like them” (the crazies) but at the same time wishing my beard would “spark, whistle, chirp”. I am far more responsible about my lifestyle and mental hygiene than I was eight years ago (thankfully, I didn’t get drunker as I got older, maybe for the sole reason that I have a six-year-old). But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to go out carousing tonight with some shady characters and/or hop on the next flight to Dar es Salaam.

If there was one piece of literature that you could point to that changed you, what would it be and why?

James Baldwin has had a more profound effect on my life than any other writer – especially his collected essays. I began reading him as a teenager – thanks to a teacher who really put bell hooks’s theory of engaged pedagogy into practice – and the understanding I gained of myself, my identity, my society, has been pulsating in my mind ever since.

But this particular poem owes a greater debt to my favorite poet, Bob Kaufman. I also stumbled upon his work (Solitudes Crowded With Loneliness) as a teenager and was so immediately entranced by his bluesy surrealism that I almost marched out of the bookstore without paying, nose between his pages.

He was the first person ever referred to in print as a “beatnik”, and also an iconic lunatic, composing much of his work extemporaneously, standing on top of cars in the middle of San Francisco traffic and belting it out. There’s a poem by Bob Hershon that begins with the lines:

I never called the police when I heard Bob Kaufman

getting beaten up in the alley behind the house in North Beach

since it was always the police who were beating him.

They loved the way he bit and kicked and

scratched and never gave up.

Indeed, City Lights Books kept a collection bucket out for the bail money he needed almost every week. The imagery and motivations of “Rare Soul” are definitely tied up in my love of Bob Kaufman. I also tend to get arrested with some frequency – but in a purposeful and organized manner, committing collective acts of civil disobedience. As a white person (Kaufman was black, despite the Jewish last name) I am usually treated and processed respectfully, and a political group takes care of my legal representation and any bail that needs to be paid. Climb inside yourself, there is a madness there – a Kaufman line I used to take as a holy imperative. But increasingly, my answer is “no sir, don’t have the bells” – while my own rebellions and transgressions become much safer, deliberate, and controlled.

How do you feel the form in which you wrote this poem contributes to the subject matter?

The voice of this poem is insisting on some sense of control that isn’t really there. It recognizes the desire for chaos while trying to distance the self from that chaos. I think that’s why the prose form of a block paragraph made sense. But ontologically speaking, it’s still a poem. The language is chaotic, the images free-associated out of nowhere, and whatever logic exists is either obscure or paradoxical.

What is your editing process like?

Usually, I read the poem out loud to myself over and over again until I’m hoarse, paying closest attention to the rhythm of the words and how the syllables flow or spark when they rub up against each other in my mouth. In truth, I probably prioritize this too much – often to the exclusion of more wide-angle editing that would scrutinize the operative concepts and metaphors and consider what my poems are doing as poems, rather than just treating them as an assemblage of morphemes. I could definitely stand to ask myself more often – so why does that matter? What’s the point?

What are you currently working on?

A little over a year ago, I found myself between creative projects, having revamped an endlessly-revamped poetry manuscript, and finished yet another draft of a travel memoir. I got a Swahili taarab song stuck in my head and decided to translate it. Ever since, I have been devoting most of my creative energies to translation. And kicking myself for not doing it sooner! I speak fluent Swahili, and there’s an incredible body of Swahili poetry (among other literary forms) that either has not been translated, or only translated for academic purposes. So instead of staring at a blinking cursor all day, I find myself in the enviable position of always having too many things I’m working on. Right now, I am finalizing a manuscript of the 19th century poet Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy – while also translating Swahili hip-hop lyrics, a friend’s short stories, and a few chapters of the Afrofuturist novel Walenisi (testing the waters to see if I want to tackle the book in its entirety).

Sarina Bosco