Rob Gray - Interview

I'm Gonna Jam on This - An Interview with Rob Gray

On a Sunday afternoon, the poet/artist Carolyn Supinka joined your Old Pal on a visit to Robert Gray’s home in Northeast Portland.  Rob was kind enough to host us in his shared home and to give us a tour of his work space. We spoke about the process of creation, Rob’s engagement with the local writing and arts community, the impetus for poetry and the pitfalls of constant attendance at poetry readings, a little bit of gardening and a lot of mental processes regarding the outward experience of being an artist.  We began the conversation in Rob’s studio looking at a few paintings still in process.

Rob Gray 1.jpg

Old Pal: when did you start this series of paintings?

At the beginning of this year  
I was doing some things that were very more painterly
I’ve recently decided to be comfortable with being a boring painter sometimes, not trying to be like WAHHH, but only for a few weeks and then everything was suddenly extreme again
but in a nice way
I definitely don’t do anything with a goal, this was all like this, I was generally thinking of it as a field of flowers, and then a face comes out
there definitely
is a weird process of collecting bits of people
collecting noses collecting eyes
so none of them are anybody specific they sort of morph through different people and then end up a lot more like people than doing like a line drawing or something
it ends up being a more complex thing to look at

Carolyn Supinka: these are stretched over fabric?

this one was difficult because of the Portland bridges
trying to think of something not corny to do over that and now I feel weird they are the Portland bridges because this face is so upsettingly violent

OP: did the violence in the face just come out did you intend to paint it that way?

I definitely wanted to do a screaming face and then I kind of
it was interesting painting this on these bridges because I started it right around the week that a lot of attacks started happening on people, like those proud boys or whatever they’re called
like attacking people so I started thinking a lot about particularly like an angry male white face and over the layers of doing it at some points it looks to me like someone who’s absolutely thrilled their sports team has just scored a goal
or just like violently like attacking someone and it’s weird how close those things can be
I have difficulties sometimes, like with this one it looks like a cartoon in some ways a sort of too graphic kind of thing so
it’s like a balance trying to
it is a picture, but I don’t just want it to be a picture I want it to feel different than a graphic or an illustration or something like that

OP: how long have you been painting in general?

painting is what I did in school mostly at the University of California in Santa Barbara
I started there in 2002 and I was there until 2007 or so and did painting mostly and drawing and then got into performance things and then writing through different classes and mostly through different teachers
but painting
my granny was a painter
I did little cartoons I really liked graffiti when I was like twelve or so through my teenage years
so the rules of graffiti like do a little sketch fill it in with color do a highlight thing but then that happens over and over again kind of where there’s too many highlights here not texturey enough for me at the moment
it’s weird yeah, I would say painting is the thing that I have been doing the most since graduating high school I suppose but haven’t done anything in painting like writing, like been involved in a community or done shows or anything like that
it’s always felt very much more important
like these days I am more comfortable not sharing work at all and just having it be
very to do with just how I navigate life as opposed to thinking of it as
I very much don’t like art as a commodity like the success that you get how good you are at it depends on whether it’s something that sells or like is even involved in the selling of it in the capitalist bit, I suppose I think it’s more important than that

OP: have your feelings about that developed more strongly recently? I only ask because it feels to me like you’ve kind of like I don’t know like three or four years ago you had a very big presence in the Portland writing community, and you were doing a reading series and often doing readings yourself but it feels like recently kind of not so much

I would say that is vaguely a balance
it’s not just a reluctance of mine I think that’s kind of a defensive mechanism in some way
I am gonna do a reading next week and it is the first reading I’ve done in a long time and it’s not because I’ve been like asked to do a lot of readings and decided that no I’d rather not
at the same time as deciding I’m not super into pursuing readings I’ve also just not
I haven’t really been asked to doing readings much
I think a lot of things have changed about the way the Portland scene has existed over the years where I think some things
there was a time when the Portland poetry scenes and readings scenes where something very special was happening and it was like everybody was quite into it like multiple readings would happen during the week and lots of people would go to them and things like that, but it ended up being
some things came to light in the community
where some people were not so cool not so nice and things
where the gatekeepers of those readings and those small presses and stuff ended up being not particularly nice people definitely
like rumors about lots of things
I felt like for my reading series I tried to really
once we realized that only white people were going to all of our readings some people responded to that in a certain way and some people just shied away completely
for the last year of my reading series I was trying to combat that by really consciously curating in an anti- white-supremacist way but then it was different for like
people didn’t come to shows and stuff like that it just changed the dynamics of things which was good but all in all it was like a bubble burst and it was like the magic that we thought was there was not really there
and also, I just think we all everybody was doing things in a lens of capitalism still
like just pretending that it mattered that much to have book release parties
there was a feeling there was a sense to everything that it was less about doing the work and more about navigating the marketing of that work
I think that happens with everything if it’s in that lens like it happens in the music scene like the people who are making the best music you’re not hearing that music because they’re concerned with making the music
but the people who are really good at navigating, like social media’s really important for that
but like it just means you can be really good at getting your work out there which takes a lot of effort but then the work that gets out there is less interesting sometimes because of that
so, for me I think that I had some experiences about how much time and energy I put into being at readings and trying to be involved as much as possible and the things that I thought were gonna be worth it weren’t worth it
but then for myself the way that I have developed it’s of the utmost importance for just my general sanity at all and then in addition to that
happiness or comfort or anything to very consistently be doing creative work
painting’s really important
writing’s really important
far more important than sharing the things or having a reading where it’s like oh that went really well
I think I’ve had to center more just being in my studio just making things and also
my job situation got really different in a way where I just invested a lot more energy into the community that I have at work
where just now the idea of doing something on a weekday is just bonkers
but I found that to be quite worthwhile and I found that I quite like being an artist where I don’t worry at all
nothing has to sell to continue the creative process
I actually can rely on my job and just invest in myself that way
I think that that gives one a lot of freedom to make things in a way that if I had been in any way successful at things, I think
there are so many examples of people falling into a trap of that and I think I would be so susceptible to thinking if I did something that was really successful and celebrated I would be susceptible to believing everything that was said about it at that moment and I would be very full of myself and consequently lots of things in my life would not go so well it seems
I think I spent a long time like in college doing music things a lot where I was like oh I just have to keep on doing this and I’ll do big concerts and readings that’re gonna be packed and
whatever it is I’ve written lately I’ll just send it to someone, and we will all make money together
I don’t really know like exactly what I was thinking but I do feel quite strongly that I’m glad that those things didn’t really happen in a way that has allowed me to just
keep making things
because that has definitely been the thing that has kept my interest in everything rolling
I definitely have had great wonderful successes in publishing things and then I’ve realized
that was not the best bit for me
getting a book release party and celebrating the thing it really at the end of it leaves me quite down
and even when people respond very positively
I just know that’s not the bit that resonates with my relationship with the things that I make

OP: what leaves you down?

it’s so difficult to exist when other people are doing it as well
so I’m tempted to doing readings
I could have booked a reading that was quite like
oh cool I get to read with this person
at this series that’s like cool
and the whole thing could go really well and I could do a fine job and know that I satisfied myself and the audience had a nice time and people said nice things to me afterwards and all that kind of thing but
it’s not dissimilar to the way social media works
it’s like these little things where Ooh this is super fun and everybody’s so nice to me
and then the next day everybody’s normal to you again
it makes you feel bad but then it makes you feel really silly for feeling bad about that because you know that it’s not a big deal
I find that to then be really detrimental to my continued pursuit of that craft
like I’d do a good reading and then be like
cool what’s next and then want to write something that reflected how fantastic I was at writing
how much better I would be next time
but no one’s really keeping score but me
there are a few little traps that are so easy to trick yourself into that can
generally, in my mental health area creates a zone where I’m just frustrated with nothing really but the main problem with that is being blocked
it can feel
like painting can feel quite silly sometimes you’re just swishing things around there’s millions of people doing it as well
you’re not like so genius
like I’m reading about Francis Bacon right now like back in that time somehow within a couple of his first paintings some people were like oh genius
genius right here and then other people were like no! awful
I’m like why the fuck did anybody even look at his first paintings anyway how did he make that happen?
the lens through which we see everything
the way that the writer is writing about that artist and they have to sell their shit too
it’s such a layered capitalism where you can’t really trust anything that’s going on in terms of
how does that place my work in the grand scheme of art
I certainly still have moments of falling into the trap everyday
I have to delete Instagram off my shit all the time because I see someone do a little cartoony thing and they get five thousand likes
and I’m like what the fuck how does that
but it’s just because I’ve created these weird bizarre rules
like the person’s little doodle gets five thousand likes it’s awesome
it’s a nice little doodle there’s no real value system in that
and it does seem bonkers to try and get likes
or any kind of social media thing it doesn’t actually pay off in any way
but that’s where you base your value
our society suffers greatly from viewing art through this lens and I think there are a few things out there that are very lovely
and graffiti is one of the things that just exists out there
literally you fail at it if anybody knows who you are
and people put themselves at great risk just to go out there and get some paint up on a wall
one of the great privileges with working with people with disabilities is that you can learn about how they navigate the creative process
and it’s almost nothing to do with capitalism
it’s like oh cool I’ll arrange these things in the way that I think they should be arranged
or any kind of traditional fine art medium through the lens of someone that’s not completely saturated with the way that our society is ends up creating something that’s much more honest and really worth looking at than going to like First Thursday or something and seeing who’s got their paintings in the fancy gallery thing

OP: do you still enjoy going to opening receptions for artists and stuff? I hear what you’re saying about the potential of capitalist business interfering.  I struggle with that too and I think everyone who is making art has to think about it, but it’s also a very great thing for an artist to be successful. So, do you just enjoy like if you had a friend or knew an artist would you still go?

yes, definitely and I do
where I might fuck myself in that type of scenario like readings if you go to them a lot
I like to be in a place where I can go and like the thing and not want to try to steal the idea
and that’s just on me to be in that mind state when I go to the thing
I think museums are lovely I do usually have a bit more space for people who are dead like at the moment thinking about Francis Bacon
when I come down here right now I’m thinking about like fifty years ago and now
I just pretend like nothing happened at all
like just continue a conversation that’s been had ad nauseum about whether figures should appear in paintings or not,
or whether it should be completely abstract
so, I think that there are a few different ways where you’re either consuming art and then you have to do something just to enjoy it
music is like that too like if you are just listening to music to hear what the new sound is like then you end up not enjoying it or taking it in and that’s a great detriment to an artist
definitely have to be able to consume things but also like I like gallery things
but what I like the most is going to thrift stores and finding when people have left just like one photo in a photo album by accident or finding a sketchbook with some kid’s drawings in it or something
things like that
where the moments of art are not limited to the gallery space
and the poetry does not exist at the poetry reading at all actually that’s where the sharing of the poetry is
it comes down to some kind of actually pretty boring discussion of what art is
and where you get it
I think that I get it and it makes sense to me a lot more when it’s not at a place where I’ve been told to expect it
I’m not going into a gallery expecting to have my mind blown these days
sometimes you get on a bus and you show your bus pass and
the driver’s like cool thank you
you’re like oh thanks
and you go through someone smiles at you and you sit down and you’re going past some trees and the sun is in such a way that it does shadows on you a bunch and you’re like wow my visual experience in the last few minutes has been really spectacular
it’s about being open to those things
also the inspiration from work  
from working with people with disabilities where it’s not necessarily their artwork is from such an outsider perspective
it’s about hanging out with people and chatting about their stories
all those experiences end up working into when you’re making your own creative act
but mostly I think that for me it’s become really important to avoid these pitfalls of what it should be
if I really want to be like a painter that wants to be in shows do I really have to go to other painter’s shows?
do I have to get a dealer?
all these things I’ve read about this but it doesn’t have anything to do with what my relationship to my brushstroke is and what I feel about that
I feel like it has been healthy for me to work out that that can exist outside of everything
that nothing actually has to have any pictures taken of it
or has to be shared
my qualities as a writer are not inherently based upon how many readings I have and how people want to book me or not want to book me  
it’s really important that we have a big ego because why would anybody do this?
there’s nothing special about any of us
so why would one person’s arrangement of paint on a canvas be in any way
a better quality than somebody else’s arrangement of paint on a canvas
it is important to have a fake ego of being like I think I paint
because I paint
because I think I am the best at it
and when I write I think what I’m doing I believe in so much
I’m like this is what I’m meant to be doing right now
which then to me means that it’s important
it’s really important that I entertain that idea as much as possible because that’s really important for the continuation of making things
that’s one of the things that I’ve centered as the reason to get out of bed
so just for self-preservation it ends up being this routine that you depend on

Rob Gray 2.jpg

OP: when you are focused on these paintings, do you have other things, like I know everybody needs to take breaks, so do you have other things that you do otherwise or in other venues that give you a break but you still find meaningful or important to do?

yeah well for a long time I’ve done multiple creative acts indiscriminately
I kind of had a reason to be doing drawing and painting because I went to college
that was what I signed up to be a major in
but then I started making music because I thought it was cool and I loved listening to music
for some reason I thought if I want to judge music I have to be able to participate in the creation of it as well
so for many years basically sort of cycled through different creative media and ended up in a way where all those balance each other out and kind of speak to each other a bit
the way that I make music speaks to the way that I do paintings
usually something dumb happens where I’m like
I have this really good painting idea
I’m gonna jam on this
I got this series I got worked out I’m gonna do these faces!
and then I’ll spend a month just creating music where I’m like I don’t know why I keep doing this
so there’s definitely a balance to that
and then also as I’ve grown older there’s some things that have to happen that aren’t making things
but that are important to the making things bit
so I like watching soccer,
and things like that
I was very heavily into sports when I was young
then I discovered more like skateboarding and drugs and was like ugh organized sports not cool
then as I’ve gotten older I’ve appreciated particularly football
the beautiful parts of it that I loved when I was younger
I love watching that
pretty much both for me and Lindsay now we have quite intense jobs so being smart enough to make time to hang out together is a really important weird thing
where previously it wasn’t
we just sort of fluidly did things
nowadays we’re like oh we are gonna have dinner on these days
a little bit more value in cooking and keeping the house nice
stuff like that just ends up being actually important
it’s the kind of thing that my dad would just laugh at me these days
I told you you would get boring some day

OP: my mom I think feels the same way about me where I used to just be a mess like skating and being drunk all the time and now I have this apartment where I’m keeping it nice I have plants keeping them alive and healthy

it’s not easy
Lindsay does all the plant things
we have this really nice garden that she’s made over the years
I just help out
I’m sort of like a sous chef of plants
apart from the weed we grew
we grew some weed a couple of years ago and I got invested in that

OP: how did it turn out?

we grew it just on the alleyway over here
we thought it was a male plant, so it was just going to be a fun thing to grow
then it ended up budding
it was a Blueberry Kush plant that we ended up harvesting seventeen point four ounces  
or something like that
I got into keeping that healthy
it was amazing it was funny because it was really just like right there (on the alleyway) all the time actually the person who gave us the starter they had a bunch of them,
and somebody broke into their greenhouse and ruined them all when they were really young
and ours was just out there
right on the alleyway
people usually wouldn’t notice it was there
or they’d be walking by and you could see them through the kitchen window just be like (smelling)
and then as it was maturing it was just nuggets
like huge pieces of fruit hanging you know
I’d just be going to work and be like oh fuck today
like they’re not quite ready I was reading all about them
I could still see the little things it’s not like mature enough yet
but like boy if anybody sees this they’re just like BAM
it was like magic it was like nobody could see it at the moment

OP: did it smell?

yeah oh yeah it was amazing
I hope it was inspiring

OP: the reason I asked about the distractions was because of your chairmaking, can you talk about that?

this was a weird thing
there was somewhat of a timeline in terms of going to Berlin and going to a museum called
the Museum der Dinge, the Museum of Things
and it was about objects
just like consumerist objects and the German design history of very utilitarian type things
and all kinds of just like stuff
they had an exhibition of chairs where I was just like oh cool these
I don’t know I just love chairs I sit in them all the time I think they’re great
so then I thought that I would want to try and make chairs
and then I realized that its quite difficult to make chairs

so then I decided to be really bad at making chairs and make unsittable chairs
and then I made an Instagram
actually, this is probably one of the reasons why I freaked out about readings
because I made an Instagram and within a few days I had thousands of followers
or enough where I was like oh shit
and also for no particular reason
so then I started getting very into chairmaking
I was trying to make about a chair a day and ended up having some spatial issues

OP: why did that freak you out about readings?

well I don’t know like I would get a lot of messages and like weird things
people would want things
like being like oh come on make a chair
strange corporate things were asking if I could make a chair
like oh come in and do this thing on video
the one that freaked me out the most was one for Mozilla Firefox
they were doing a thing and they were like oh we are looking for local Portland artists and things where I was just like
oh this was just gonna kind of be silly

OP: did you ever do anything?

no no no
not for something like that
I almost traded a chair for some hot dogs with a food cart
but I got a little lazy about taking it over to them
I found out that their hot dogs were tiny hot dogs
I was like oh I don’t make tiny chairs
also like a lot of the people who loved the chairs were like craft people like woodworkers of Instagram and stuff like that
and they ended up just like making jokes about the chairs that I just didn’t understand
so I was just like I’m not sure if I’m enjoying this anymore

OP: I don’t know if I even followed that account but did you stop posting on it?

I left the page up and just wrote the dates of the project and just kept it at that
I haven’t made a chair in a long time just because I’ve kind of whittled it down to my favorites
I guess that I just haven’t worked out what to do with them
for a while I was taking them out into the neighborhood and leaving them
I did some craigslist ads being like “free couch”
and then at the same time I had my book come out with University of Hell when I was right in the thicket of doing chairs
so I did some events presenting chairs but maybe I should have been reading poems
I’m not sure
I’d get lots of messages wanting more chairs
more pictures of chairs
but I didn’t have much space to do things
it is just the kind of thing where
once it’s played its course I can’t just keep making similar looking chairs
its definitely the kind of thing where
similar with painting
if I get onto a thing that’s working it’s not gonna work for very long if there’s a formula to it basically
so I ended up just deciding to stop making chairs and stop doing it and then feeling quite good about that
it was definitely really fun to make things you know
to use a drill and that for a bit
and one of the nice things was going and getting the wood
I’m a real appreciator of real old crap
like this is lovely to me
it’s like broken grossness

OP: where were you getting the wood?

my favorite way is just walking the alleyways of our neighborhood and finding wood lying around and then taking it back here
making a chair
and then taking that chair back to where I found that wood and returning it there
but then I was doing a lot of runs to the Rebuilding Center
and if weird little thrift stores had a corner of broken brooms I like that kind of stuff
some of them are dangerously sittable
after the chairs I started doing stairs
I went from stairs to chairs
or just using canvases in a way to make weird things
but with some stuff like that you just gotta be practical
I either can make this and it can be an art object that is a sculpture that exists somewhere
or it stays in the basement and here it is
I went from chairs to doing these canvas sculpture things
and then just got more into canvas
then regressed back to basic paintings
but you know I’ll probably end up nailing those paintings together or something
it’s difficult to say what happens next all the time
I’ll have a vague idea
I’ve been painting these humany-type things and it’s like oh
this is clearly a series
but then what happens is difficult to say
because the answer is capitalism next mostly
you’d have a show you would then decide how much they’re worth and pursue that

OP: do you sell your paintings right now?

no not really
I give them to people sometimes
it’s such a weird balance because I’ll feel very connected to them for a while and then suddenly very indifferent to them
so a lot of them get painted over because that’s just a nice way for paintings to exist
if people particularly like things then I usually give them to them
it’s weird because I like paintings and I like reading about paintings
and I know how they’re valued in a successful situation
like these paintings are like thousands of dollars paintings to me
but I don’t know anybody who values them at that so that’s okay
but this is a painting that I know has been finished for a very long time
I really like it it’s like kind of psychedelic and weird
but if someone was like twenty bucks
then I’d be like yeah definitely that’s a twenty buck painting right there that’s fine with me
at the time that I made it I’d probably be like no that was worth more to me or whatever

Rob took down and unraveled on the floor an unfinished large canvas

so this is really close to where I work
basically I work with an individual who has it written into their plan of support that every day we walk across this bridge going over the i-84 and the train tracks to go to Jackson’s to get a pop
so this is the Jackson’s walk that someone at Full Life has to do everyday

OP: what kind of pop?

a Dr Pepper from the machine
this is only unfinished because I’m really unsettled about the clouds at the moment
that’s not at all what the sky looks like in Portland
I really want to try to get it to feel like there are some clouds really close to us and the other ones further away
I hope this building stays in some fashion
it seems like it’s really not at the moment
but it also seems like a difficult building to get rid of its just all bricks

OP: one of the first photographs that I ever took was of the Gordon’s sign and it came out like the first roll that I shot it was one of the best photos that I took in that roll and I was just driving by and just rolled down the window and was just like oh cool you know

yeah it’s a good sign on that building
there’s a lot of nice tags on it at the moment
there’s a painter I really like called Rose Wylie and she paints on loose canvas in this style so I was like oh yeah I’ll do that

OP: how do you work on this?

this was a matter of
I draped it over this table in there and just did it in sections
going back and forth
so not like I painted that section completely but I like sketched out that area
kind of did as much as I could before having to let everything dry
then went sort of back and forth several times I would say
then I had a few days where I just dotted some stuff in
it was really quick actually
this is the part of the walk that I actually like where you can see the volcano
which isn’t actually there it’s actually in the middle I fucked it up

OP: why did you change the perspective of the painting?

so this is when you actually start walking and Jackson’s is down here
so to me it read from right to left
and if you’ve left Full Life and you’re walking down the sidewalk then you’re here with this in front of you and this is the Gordon’s building
then you get to this area where I particularly make sure to look out at the view because I feel like it’s a really easy one to miss
you’ve got this nice freeway and the volcano at the back
so I stop for a moment there and look that way
I was more into like David Hockney when I was thinking of this
thinking of how we actually see things
how things actually look
so when I do the Jackson’s walk I kind of see it like this
where we are right here right now
when you actually do the Jackson’s walk you’re never standing where we are looking from in the painting
you just cross the other side of the street there
but in my mind’s eye that’s the flash of Gordon’s
and then the Shell station
we have to do the Jackson’s walk because the individual is banned from Plaid Pantry which is just right across the street from us
so it ended up being kind of a nice thing
because then they end up getting a kind of good walk everyday
there’s funny things in my mind where
when I was doing this was like
well what I’ll want to do is finish this and then
maybe find a business in this neighborhood with a big wall
and be like oh that’d be really cool
but like without fail all of a sudden I’m tired of David Hockney
and got into wanting to paint really upsetting faces
these days I just try not to feel bad about that
it’s not my job
I feel strongly like this
my job is making this stuff to stay down here

OP: yeah just sort of following whatever avenue you are facing

it just seems like everything else is a big waste of time
I definitely understand and I’m so glad I live in a world where people can make art and pursue that as their sole career and become successful at that
but it’s very important that it doesn’t work for everybody
that’s the point that it only works for a small amount of people
they get to be the cool artists and everybody is the consumer of it

Rob Gray 3.jpg

After having the tour of the basement studio, we went back upstairs into Rob and Lindsay’s kitchen and continued our conversation at the kitchen table.

OP: are you still writing poetry?

yes I’m still writing
I would say that the thing that most generally occupies me is actually the thing that you published quite a long time ago through…

OP: through Portland Review? The novel that you were writing?

yeah so I got to a spot with that where I felt it’s quite close to finished and was definitely at a novel length work at this point and four months ago or something had my friends Julian and Robyn and Lindsay read it and now have basically been
I have an idea about it which makes it completely unfinished
now it’s opened up again
adding to it a lot pretty much
it was all about the way I don’t think it was making sense
at the point when I was sending you things for that
it was all about care providing
all about my experiences working and the balance of that and the literary scene
just what life was like
and so it’s a balance of things
like written things by clients at work
by myself about things at work kind
of journal entries about work
and then poems that I was writing throughout that whole time
kind of weaved together
the thing that I want to add to it now is that I have
from the years that I’ve been working at Full Life  
and clearing out my office at various times ever since
I’ve had an office for a couple years or so before that was just working directly with people
but from gathering things I basically have like boxes of weird historic paraphernalia of Full Life
and my experiences there
and artwork people have given me
all sorts of things
so I want to go through and one at a time take things out of a box and write things about that object
have an object history of that time as well
and weave that into the narrative
so in a kind of similar way it’s ended up being like a project that I’m taking very seriously that has no particular end in sight and no particular aims
I probably at this point would only be interested in publishing this myself
not sending things to places
or having other people do that part of the process
for me it’s a bit weird
like I had very strange feelings similar to what we were talking about earlier about doing a reading and then it going really well and then having negative feelings after that
for publishing a book that happens hugely
after all of the time making it and all of the time being involved in designing it and editing it and then having it go off and be in other people’s hands
and eventually having it come back and then being like
oh cool
but then after that
it’s not as fulfilling as I thought it would be

OP: was that your experience with your book from University of Hell?

yeah I think though I don’t think there’s anything that I would’ve necessarily changed about how it happened
and the people working on it they were amazing, and it was really good but
at the end it was something that I had difficulties processing afterwards
I think one of the biggest things immediately was that a big chunk of it was an erasure
I did a full erasure of a whole book
and that book was called Whorehouse about a man’s experiences with Whorehouses of the world and the general growth I think that I had between writing that and publishing it was
I was just like what the fuck was I
like why would I even like
yeah it was a really different mind state from writing it to publishing it
when I actually look back at the things,
I don’t actually regret any of the work
but when I think about just having a section called Whorehouse
I’m like what’s wrong with you?
I think that I erased enough of it to make the work itself essentially fine
but the way that that’s kind of played out
and I think there was some timing bummers about it for me
where I released this thing but then just had to do so much
just of my time and energy into my day job
so like I didn’t go do a fancy tour or anything like that
or like the things that some people do

OP: would you have wanted to?

I don’t think so haha
I don’t know like it was a weird thing where I think I put a lot of effort into it
I made a lot of stuff to promote the book but then felt mixed feelings about it in the end
the one book that I really like is the book on Ross Robbin’s press (Bone Tax Press)
where there’s nice letter press things
I look at some of the poems in there these days and I’m like ehhhh
too many words  
but in general I’m like that was a nice jam but then this one
it’s made me feel very much like oh it’s really nice to retain your own control of your things
and celebrate them in the small ways that feel good
instead of trying to do a big network thing
trying to book yourself with specific people
there’s a whole range of things that remind me of being in high school
it’s sort of a popularity thing which doesn’t seem to serve anybody
except at the time the people that were the cool kids
I thinks its definitely a weird world where those things happen
where it’s like the stakes are relatively low but everybody cares so much
the local publishing scene is not a make or break financial thing no one’s in that zone
it’s a nice thing but it gets complicated
it seems weird to sort of take turns being the person who’s releasing the book or the person who’s doing the reading
it’s too much a patriarchal thing where you have to break into the scene and then
share this much but not this much
there’s just lots of weird social rules around it which one of the points of pursuing a creative process is to not pay attention to the weird human society things that aren’t real
I try to paint faces that are doing emotional things that I myself don’t do
I don’t get angry
so trying to work out what anger is in a painting is the closest I get
I don’t get very sad
I’m not doing emotional things with myself
those are all things that are happening inside of us
but the way we’ve set everything up
where it’s like ohhhh if this injustice happens
I express my anger and outrage through the way that everybody else does
there just isn’t a normal person
but I think it sucks that all of our society is based upon the fact that we are going to believe that there are actually normal people
and we are all gonna try to be normal people
and there’s just not a single one out there it’s a shame
people who are not normal make it interesting

Rob Gray 4.jpg

CS: and that controls so much of our behavior is looking for this ideal that isn’t real. Do you think that that is something that drives a lot of your work is thinking about that?

yeah I basically
I think it’s really difficult to exist with anybody else in the room
so it’s like pursuing a creative process particularly in a space
these days I can make things with Lindsay in the room
that works okay mostly
its best to be alone in a room
but yeah like the expectations about how people act
it’s very inescapable once a second person is like
oh you can see me and I can see you now
that shapes everything we do
which is something that I find very frustrating
strangely though I think there are certain times where being in a group or with people at work I feel very different
specifically people with developmental disabilities I just have a long history of hanging out with them
where I feel like I’ve learned how to be myself with people from hanging out with that specific population
if I didn’t have that it would be much more difficult to function and go out into the world and just talk to people where now I can do that quite fine
how did you word that question?

CS: I was wondering if thinking about the ideal of being normal is something that you’re interested in in your work, like trying to understand expressions that you don’t relate to or understand or other things.

yeah I think that mostly it plays into that as navigating a way to accept being not normal
it’s easy to see for any creative process where you’re like that’s a space where the artist is in control of the universe
everything else you have very little control of it
but when you’re doing your thing like when you’re drawing your comic or you’re writing your poem or painting your painting that’s a space where one of the most important things is that you control that
which is why it’s easiest to do when nobody’s there because you’re not worried about somebody looking over your shoulder and being like
huh that’s a bit shit
which is so difficult it sucks showing things to people in process
and they’re like oh nice
you’re like whaaa
you just ruined it
even though they said it was nice

OP: did we ruin your paintings down there for you today?

no no no
that’s one of the things why I feel different
why I feel nice about my paintings at the moment
because it feels like a like a level up situation
where like at this point
though it changes all the time
but I feel so successful in deciding to connect solely with the creative act that I can show people things or not show people things and they can’t ruin them for me anymore
but it also creates a situation where I just don’t give a fuck if they see them or not
so it’s sort of a weird catch 22 where I feel like I’ve built up the stamina to be able to not expect anybody to react the way I want them to react because they haven’t been through the same process that I have with that thing and just looking at it as a flat thing
for me it’s been layers and layers of stuff
now in a way if I love a painting that I’ve made and no one else values it
that’s not gonna be the reason why I paint over it I’ll probably keep it
that’s a finished work and then the value of it is not is this gonna hang up somewhere eventually?
or is this gonna be in a gallery or a show somewhere?
then I’ve injected it with a value that doesn’t have anything to do with anything else really
that to me is probably the most successful work then
but the catch 22 is that it’s in a way where I’ve had to come to terms with the idea that everybody is completely indifferent to my work
because there’s lots of people
I’m also now completely indifferent to anybody seeing my work
which I would only say is half true.
I took pictures of my paintings yesterday and put them on my website you know
I have a website that I continue to use
I just don’t tell anybody to go to it but that’s a part of an important thing

OP: do you keep that website in a kind of way to curate yourself, even if you’re not actively trying to pursue some sort of recognition? there’s a way we all kind of build a life and everything that we want it to be and so is the website a part of your way of showing what you’re doing?

it’s important that it’s there and it’s something that I go back and look on
it can cheer me right up
like dang that’s a lot of stuff and interesting things
where I’m like yeah no this continues to be a weird winding path of making kind of quite a lot of cool things
I generally just have blind faith that at some point someone interacts with it
that is completely fantastic to me
like what I would consider is someone who instantly just kind of gets it and thinks that things on the website are cool
or that some things are better than others or anything like that
I think it would be in a way where there are things that inspire me and for the website to work that way for someone else that sounds nice and fine
that’s not the way that art shows happen though
art shows happen when you invite your peers to come and like something or not like something but I’ve liked things where I’ve been in a library and looked at paintings by someone who is dead and been excited about that
for some reason it’s important that I document my work and that I make that available for someone to stumble upon
but who it is and when that happens and that it happens at all is actually almost none of my business like I just don’t have anything to do with that part of the process
someone else just has to see it
and it seems really counterintuitive to try to make as many people see it as possible for the chance that some kind of connection happens
if I’m putting this much of myself into it it’s gotta happen at some point where somebody is like
oh I was feeling really really down and now I feel a bit better, or whatever
and definitely that’s the space that I aim for
my favorite artists are weird ones who are outsider artists and that’s exactly what I want to do
I’m in a spot where that’s exactly where I want to be
making things and comfortably able to smoke all this weed and stuff
but the struggle is that capitalism still happens
you’re still in this zone where you have to remind yourself all the time

OP: well what do you mean because you could just continue making your stuff and not engage in the business part of that where you still have this job and are engaging in capitalism in that way and everything like that, like we all have to be a part of that system but the art side of it I guess doesn’t have to be in that system is what it sounds like you’re saying you want and where you are

but I’m still always susceptible
it’s always still like in a little thing in my mind where I’m like OH
like I have this idea of how to release this or
OH that person’s song’s not even that good or
however I’m comparing myself to other people
especially when social media comes in to stuff
like I liked Billy Childish who is just someone who records music in England and is a painter and a musician person
and I like things but then you always compare yourself to things
and as soon as you’re comparing yourself you’re fucked
you’ve already taken yourself out of your creative conversation
and you’re in that capitalist zone which
you always have to trick yourself to continue to make things
to continue to feel good about them regardless of how they’re doing or what they’re doing in the world
I think that the challenges that come up when you decide to be an artist don’t go away
they just get weirder and more complicated and also simple at the same time
but at this point I intend to continue to do exactly this and I do feel strongly that it’s not important to share things
I have to do that bit but how that happens is still a malleable future
it doesn’t have to happen in the way that it happens for everybody else

OP: so what are your plans if you finish this novel? in your mind right now if it was a finished product what would you do with it?

I think I would want to work with my friends of Dimsummer Book Club and to make about an edition of one hundred
and make them and celebrate that in a way that doesn’t benefit anybody who is selling alcohol or
celebrate in a space that’s just
I like having stuff here at home
having a small release thing or having a reading or something like that
or have a bbq somewhere or just have something where it’s like silly and goofy
I definitely have realized that I like bars so much but for all of my time organizing readings it just never occurred to me that I was doing an incredible amount of work and like making money for this bar without even realizing
I was really grateful to be able to make money for somebody who owns a bar
just a general frustration with just how limited suddenly the idea of sharing literature became when it was like oh well you could do it at
actually its so nice to have the IPRC but like you know
you can have your reading at this bar you can have your reading at like Literary Arts
there suddenly was less than ten places to have your reading and the format was always the same and things just became kind of stale at that point
maybe also it just generally asks a lot of people to sit there and listen to anything these days
I would find my ability to actually enjoy poems was getting less after going to lots of readings
especially those readings being like all pretty good
you know like going to readings and people reading their nice things like perfectly nice things like oh I liked your reading good job today like cool
but I want more from it then that
I want either to have it be like something where I’m sitting in my own living room with people where I’m comfortable sharing things
or like a fucking bonkers theater that I’ve been able to redesign completely to cater to what I actually want that to look like
something where you either get to create the whole world for it orrrrr  
somehow you just like show people this little slice of something
like some readings are so good that are this format of just having the host go up and be like
these are the readers
this is why we are here
and then the poets read for five or ten minutes
and that can work really well
but something has to happen that’s like magical
when they’re happening all the time and people are just like ohhhh this is what I wrote this week
there’s something nice about a community of people coming together and sharing what they’re working at in that way
BUT you also then end up being like it’s less special every time
it’s more of like I don’t know
it’s a different way of doing art which I think ends up being something that repels people from poetry readings
being kind of boring that’s what people don’t like

OP: and in that setting the art starts to be produced for that setting or with that setting in mind, that it will be performed or shared at these weekly or very frequent gatherings

its perhaps easier to talk about through a lens of slam poetry which I was very invested in for a number of years through college and after for a time
and did slam here in Portland at Backspace when that was open
that is something where at least it’s openly a competition and you’re there to win and stuff,
and that has a lot of problems in it for itself but at least that’s an honest way of approaching it
and the point of slam with the person who came up with that format was trying to combat like boring old-people poetry readings about nature  
whatever they thought was boring
they wanted to create a dynamic poetry event where people would come up and be theatrical and do cool things
which it did do and then that format became what it is today which is a bit different but exactly the same as poetry readings in that you know what to expect
you know exactly the tone to expect when you go to a slam what kind of things you’re going to hear
and that’s a bummer because that’s limited the style that people approach that perfectly fine format
the same thing happened here
it’s all about like how you’re reading and certain things got popular and certain writers wanted to write in that style and everybody was just trying to do the same kind of thing that was being the most successful in the small press circuit
so you’re already in this tiny world and you’re all just trying to be exactly like each other so that’s not a very honest art experience in the end either
I think it’s really difficult for a community to stay accountable to continuing to make interesting art when you have all agreed that everybody will get their turn at sharing whatever art they’re making right now
when that’s the goal it’s going to inevitably become stale at some point because people aren’t pushing the boundaries or something
but also the idea of a reading series where everybody is pushing the boundaries every time sounds fucking exhausting to be at so I don’t want that either
poetry is very weird I don’t know what it is anymore
like I always thought that I knew what poetry was
I just knew
and it wasn’t to do with words being placed together
it was to do with some kind of beautiful moment that you’d had or something and then you try to use words to make something of that
but I think that’s changed over time
where the beautiful moment is just a part of life
you don’t have to know anything about poetry to just be like ohhh the butterfly flew by my face and I heard this nice noise at the same time and that was just a really beautiful moment

OP: I was reading an obituary for WS Merwin and they were talking about how we are caught thinking that the beautiful moment is when we are at the poetry reading and we are in the audience and we hear the poet read their beautiful poem about a beautiful moment that they had, but the beautiful moment is really the beautiful moment that the poet had and they’re trying to write a poem about it.  It’s unfair to expect that you’re going to have a beautiful moment being the audience of the poem. Which is totally possible on a personal level I think to have a beautiful experience of the poem.

Yeah and you might relate to them
you might think like oh well I’ve looked through a rainy window as well or whatever

OP: I tend to forget myself though that you know, the poem was written because of some experience

Yeah, or not.
It’s difficult to say.  
It frustrates me between something that’s so intangible and then just the way that I think about language is just that it’s like a code and there’s just limited words
like when you are quantifying a person with disabilities on paper to look at them sometimes you talk about how many words they have in their vocabulary and that’s been a weird thing to read
where someone who you’ve had conversations with for years
suddenly you read on a piece of paper that they have a vocabulary of forty words
and you’re like holy shit that’s amazing
I don’t know how many words I have but it means that I’m limited with words
and when we are doing specifically poetry I think
but I suppose it falls into any kind of writing
you’re trying to unlock some kind of thing in someone else and you’re trying to say your code and that person hears that code and that does something in their brains to connect with their experience of those words and how they think its clever or poetic the way you’ve arranged them
so it’s better to not be like ohhh this beautiful moment happened and I will write this
the butterfly flew past this but to then get to more of the core of how that felt
and then try to use words to create how that felt for someone is similar to when you’re trying to do paintings
you’re trying to do a portrait of someone
and it’s probably much better to just realize that it is twenty nineteen and if you want a picture of someone that looks like them then you just take it with your phone.  
If you’re doing a painting of someone you’re not gonna go for exactly what they look like
the point of it is that you need to have something in there of what they feel like and so that can kind of end up being something that doesn’t depict that person at all but does somehow viscerally connect with the system that you are processing that information with to make you feel something that reminds you of that person or most likely some person because we are not all gonna know the subject of every painting, like the person who is in it.
so poetry should have the same kind of goal where it’s like you don’t have to have sentences you know obviously you don’t have to have them be rhymey and have anything but what you’re going for at the core is to unlock some kind of emotion in someone or some kind of reaction to your code.
It’s really difficult to do specifically
for me these days it’s more about creating layers of words and jumbling them up and changing them and coming out with something in the end that is satisfyingly not like a poem
and then I think it’s nice