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People-Pleasing and the Art of the Sentence-graph: The Definitive Sam Pink Interview (part two)

Interview by Mike Kleine.

Part one of this conversation can be found here.


3:AM: I remember when I first read your poetry online, I had never read anything else like it and I bought the book immediately. I was still in high school at the time. It was your book, I AM GOING TO CLONE MYSELF AND THEN KILL THE CLONE AND EAT IT from Paper Hero Press (run by Barry Graham). For the most part, since then, it seems you published almost exclusively with Lazy Fascist Press (now defunct). Is this something you aim for when you write, exclusivity in publishing? Or was it a contract requiring that you write x number of books?

 Sam Pink: i published with lazy fascist exclusively because [1] i liked cameron and his press. [2] they gave me freedom to do what i wanted. [3] i was never really that connected with presses / the scene and never made an effort to expand that much so my goal was always to just find a good outlet for my stuff and let the interest in it take place naturally. so when cameron offered to put out my books, that was good enough for me. i mean, ten years ago, to have a book out at all was crazy. to have a press willing to put out multiple books was, in my opinion, fucking gold. that was my goal.

 3:AM: Your writing is largely about Chicago. Living in Chicago and working in Chicago. You write about Chicago like a journalist would write about a city, but it’s more gonzo and real, I feel. Tell me, all these minimum wage jobs and shitty apartments you write about, have you actually lived that life (or are still living that life, maybe) or is it all fiction? Or perhaps it’s a little bit of both? Maybe you know someone who actually lives this way.

 SP: yeah all the shit’s real. i mean, i’ll always stick to ‘it’s fiction’ because that’s simpler. like, ok that thing actually happened in the summer but it’s the winter in the book so fuck it. or whatever. but i honestly, and i’ve said this a lot, i have almost no ability to imagine things outside my life. i can do a lot of imagining and playing around with that info, but it’s nearly impossible for me to create anything from nothing or envision some other way. it also seems too moralistic. like why am i creating this scenario? my life is happening and it’s weird and i have weird thoughts so why not just use that?

3:AM: So then, do you believe every piece of fiction has a little bit of non-fiction in it? In other words, do you think it is possible for a writer to 100% imagine a scenario that has never happened to them or someone they know? In essence, you sort of have to write about what you know? Don’t you think? And if you don’t know, you have to research. And in researching, it becomes a part of you. Would you say you have a hard life or is there some other way you would describe it?

 SP: yeah for sure. that’s why i don’t care about the labeling aspect. like, there is just no way to create something from nothing. and there is also no way to create something ‘real.’ my answer to this kind of question of ‘is it real’ is ‘yes, do you think you read something that doesn’t exist?’ every book is 100% real. it’s also absolutely nothing like reality. i don’t think i have a hard life in the greater scheme of things. i mean someone always has it worse than you and someone definitely always has it better than you. and to be honest, with me, it’s just in my head. i grew up middle-class, girls liked me, i was good at things, people wanted to be my friend etc, but something just never felt right inside my head. like a cloud i bring everywhere. i thought i had a hard life and then i started writing and doing art and i am happy to be who i am, doing what i’m doing. you gotta change shit yourself man. figure out what you want and get it.

3:AM: In addition to the writing and all of the art, you also make music. Is that still happening?

 SP: i don’t really do music anymore. that was my first dream when i was younger. i play the drums and some other instruments and love doing it but the factor of having to get along with / identify with / create with other people was always hard to resolve. that’s why i like writing and painting so much. you can do it alone and without much preparation.

 3:AM: Did you attend university at all?

SP: yeah i went to school. i also spent all my free time practicing, which i think is way more important. you can’t be taught anything in terms of art. it’s not possible.

3:AM: I want to go back to Paper Hero Press. That I believe, is essentially what started it all. The way the world was introduced to Sam Pink. How did you meet Barry Graham or, who is Barry Graham to you?

 SP: barry graham ran / runs a site called ‘dogzplot’ and he had published a few of the things from ‘clone’ and then said he wanted it to be the first book his press published. barry is awesome, a great person and a fucking awesome writer. couldn’t have found a better person to work with for my first thing.  

 3:AM: Is there a Chicago literary scene you are affiliated with?

 SP: no scene i’m connected to. i used to do ‘quickies’ once in a while and those folks were cool (shoutout quickies folks and innertown pub). ‘ear eater’ was badass back in the day too. i don’t talk shop with writers. i also left chicago and moved to florida for a time.

 3:AM: You made a Twitter just for your art, @sampinkartt. Why? Why not just keep posting your art via your regular Twitter account? Do you feel there needs to be some sort of separation there?

 SP: i made that twitter to show what hasn’t been sold. it’s easier than locating the files and attaching them to an email if someone asks.

 3:AM: Have you had any showings at galleries. Is this even something you want?

SP: no showings. feel cursed there. i walked around st pete for a long time talking to gallery people, and to be fair i probably looked insane and sweaty. but nobody was interested. i send them emails with what i have and then i don’t hear back. i guess it doesn’t really matter to me though. like if i’m being honest, that wouldn’t seem more exciting to me than just how it is now, where someone emails me and then i mail it to them. i would probably feel uncomfortable at a showing because i wouldn’t want to talk about the paintings and, i’m guessing, the snacks would be weak.

 3:AM: Your Twitter feed is snippets of ideas and thoughts and musings. Do you have a smartphone? You seem to have abandoned your website / blog and use Twitter almost exclusively now in terms of what you post.

 SP: i just got a smartphone like last year. i determined that no one will hire you if you give them your girlfriend’s number and then act like you missed their call and call them back. i have to pay for the phone for twenty-three more months. but i can take pictures of paintings now. wow

3:AM: Do you consider publishing with a big-name publisher selling out?

 SP: i don’t consider anything existing outside of the author to be selling out. you have to decide to do something that you know is bogus and money-driven over quality. but that also means you could be more of a sellout on a small press as a big one. it’s about what you are doing.

3:AM: What’s next for you, in terms of writing? You wrote a book of plays some years ago, The Self Esteem Holocaust Comes Home.

SP: not sure what’s next in terms of writing. i have a really short book of poetry that i think i’m going to self-publish in a unique way and in a really limited way, and then i have a book of short stories i’m working on. i also wrote a movie with a director in turkey, called Arada and the director is in the process of sending it to festivals and shit. i don’t know, i always find something to do. the plays were definitely an anomaly. it was originally a single really long novel that i wrote many, many years ago and ended up hating so i turned it into a bunch of shorter, cooler things. people bring that book up a lot for some reason. i’d love to see someone make a fucked up movie with it.

3:AM: I want to talk about your time in Florida. How did you like Florida? To what extent do you feel that your location—Florida versus Chicago—influences your writing? Or pretty much, are you the type where it doesn’t matter. You could be living in Turkey or Russia or South Africa, and you would still find something to write about. I think it would be safe to say that your art sort of gives you a reason to be out and about. Wouldn’t you say? It’s like comedians who do observational humour. It’s almost like they need to be out so they can people-watch and interact with someone on the street or see something peculiar while standing in line at the gas station. This gives them their material. I think the way you think, you are able to be in a normal situation but then you’ll notice something that may not seem interesting or bizarre, like an everyday thing, but when you hone in on it and focus on it like you do in your writing, then it becomes bizarre / interesting.

 SP: i like the nature in florida a lot. ‘white ibis’ is a bird i found out about there. there was just one that would pace slowly around the driveway of where i was living. this weird white bird with a long neck and long beak. if you don’t know what a white ibis is, look it up. look it up and ask yourself what the fuck this thing is and what the fuck is it doing. so yeah, there is way too much shit to write about anywhere man. you can maybe run through it to some degree, but no one place isn’t inherently better than another. it’s you. it’s you man. wake up man. it’s you.

Every time I went outside, it’d be shuffling around where the driveway met the street.

Not really doing anything or going anywhere, just kind of pacing.

With a long white neck and a really long orange beak, walking around like a dumb-ass on its stilt legs. [White Ibis]

3:AM: I like the change in tone with White Ibis because it’s the character dealing with life at a different speed; a slower pace, if you will—and the types of people that come with this. Whereas in Chicago, you are around people all the time, whether you like it or not. It’s like you watch the same character dealing with two different worlds and what that means to him.

Reading The Garbage Times, I felt stressed out. Reading White Ibis, there are several moments where the main character is stressing out, yet, comparatively, I felt more calm while reading White Ibis, perhaps because I am more comfortable with and can relate to the types of situations presented in White Ibis?

SP: i agree, especially now that i’ve moved back to chicago. i never realized how much of a mindset it puts you in. but that made going to florida so special. it felt amazing to just be walking around and there’s a weird bird walking around too. or the screaming bugs. florida is more of a backyard bbq party and chicago is the house party that will inevitably end in a fight / the police coming. i also think i’ve mellowed out a little. when i look back on really old writing it’s clear that i was in a different state mentally. it’s kind of one of the reasons it’s nice to document stuff, especially mental stuff, it shows how you’ve changed.

3:AM: White Ibis, the progression of the story and how you tell it, is more cohesive and I feel like you’ve mellowed out as a character, like you’ve retired in a way. In Florida, it’s more like you are naturally invited to events. You run out of money and try and find a way to deal with that. But even when not everything works out, Florida is more mellow and with that feeling, there is a vibe that you cannot shake. Almost like Florida is telling you to just chill and go with it. Like, I sincerely do not think you could have written something like White Ibis without moving out of Chicago. Like you said before, going from somewhere like Chicago to Florida puts a lot of things into perspective and I feel that it’s unlocked something in you. No?

SP: yeah for sure. i’d recommend if you’re a writer, or any kind of creative person, to switch up your element. most people move to la or new york, which would be a different element for some, but there’s so much to immerse yourself in and learn. even the colors / technique of my drawing / paintings were different once i moved. i never even touched a paintbrush before i moved to florida. and now painting is one of the most important things to me. anxiety is the fear of the unknown, and joy is overcoming it.

3:AM: Was Florida where you thought you wanted to spend the rest of your life?

SP: it might have been, but i didn’t want that. i moved because it was my girlfriend’s home. i was willing to forego one more winter and that was it. that was IT, brother.

3:AM: A few people have commissioned you for art and now have tattoos of your work. How do you feel about all this? That you have created something that is going to be on someone forever.

 SP: oh man i feel awesome about it. i have a bunch of weird tattoos i drew as well. it’s awesome. random people stop me to talk about them. to be quite frank, fucking get some, dude. i’m actually trying to get into tattooing. so if anyone reads this, and seriously wants to train me, i would like to do it. i’ll be serious about it and helpful and try to make you money and make you laugh and DEFINITELY sweep.

3:AM: Do you read a lot or watch movies or listen to music? I ask because it seems painting takes up a lot of your time.

SP: i don’t watch too many movies. although not too long ago, i played ‘cobra’ on repeat for like a month straight while painting. i sometimes listen to music. but yeah painting takes up a lot of time.

3:AM: You’re a pretty big boxing fan, right? Tell me about that. What got you interested in boxing? Have you ever boxed yourself? Have you ever attended a fight?

SP: yeah man i love it. it’s the only sport i follow. my nonno was always interested in it and i think he boxed a little in the army, but then one day i was drawing or something and i had on ‘espn classics’ and they play fights all the time and suddenly i understood what was going on and couldn’t stop watching. i’ve sparred a little but nothing serious. i already have a good handful of serious concussions, definitely don’t need anymore. never been to a fight but i would love to.

3:AM: You mentioned your head and said there’s a cloud you bring with you everywhere. Let’s talk about that. Someone once said to me, “To truly be great, there has to be something wrong with you.” At first, I didn’t want to understand what she was saying. But then as time passed, I thought about it and realized that it could mean any number of things. So about your head and the cloud and what she said, what do you make of all that?

 SP: yeah i agree with that. there’s just something off about everybody i like, to be honest. especially when it comes to art.  like, if you’re hiring someone to build you some cabinets, the last thing you want to hear is ‘there’s something wrong with them.’ but fuck, if you’re drawing me a picture or writing me a story, i hope you are fucked up. if ten people look at the same picture and only one sees something different, i’m interested in that. and to tie this in to the previous question, i’m starting to think that what might be ‘off’ about me is multiple concussions. all i know is, growing up, people always commented on how dark / weird / funny my take on shit was. so i went with it. and it’s fun. be a fucking weirdo man. you’re going to die. be ‘a little off’, like someone’s grandma.

 3:AM: Would you ever consider a job working as an editor or something in the publishing business? Or do you want to distance yourself from what you enjoy? i.e. not turning it into a job.

 SP: yeah i’d consider it. i don’t consider anything a part of my writing / art world except me. and pretty much any kind of work / people / environment will teach you new things that you can then apply to your work.

3:AM: I want to discuss the Alt Lit scene a little bit, if that’s alright. Some people say you are a Bizarro writer. Others have labeled you as Alt Lit. What did you know about all that?

 SP: i guess i know as much about alt lit as anyone writing in the last ten years. it was just a label. it’s branding. which means it’s a way to lump things together to be easily comprehended by others. but i mean, i never considered the artists i liked within that ‘scene’ to be anything alike. i think i prefer individuals over scenes. like i love getting together with people like scott mcclanahan and others to do readings and shit. it’s great. but those people are spread out and interact over the internet. physical scenes are mostly depressing. i also distrust any artist able to socialize a whole lot.

3:AM: What’s interesting to me, and this sort of goes with the previous question, is the number of writers who have come and gone in the last ten years. There are a handful of writers who still write like they did back in 2007. And then there are some who wrote something and then waited a long time before writing something else. Then some people just wrote one thing and never wrote again. I think I already know the answer to this but do you feel it is the right of anyone to label themselves as writer or poet? Or does there need to be some type of earning of these titles?

SP: i mean, i guess it’s not right or wrong, and i definitely understand people’s aversions to asshole types who call themselves such things. but on the other hand, i really hate that ‘anti’ pose. like, why are you involved in poetry / writing / art but positioning yourself as someone who basically hates it? that’s so fucking lame. if you write a poem, be a fucking poet, goddamnit. i wanna eat pies made by bakers, listen to music by musicians, watch boxers box, and i want a fucking writer to write the shit i read. you don’t have to proclaim it from the mountaintops, but damn, maybe at least when you sit down to do it, quietly yell, ‘i’m a fucking poet’ in the back of your head. imagine someone about to fix your electricity and they go, ‘man, i can’t stand electricians, i’m like, not an electrician.’

 3:AM: Some people believe we are in the Dark Ages of the internet. It’s so new that we don’t know what to do with it and there’s so much happening that it’s literally impossible to see and know about everything. DFW said in an interview that there would be gatekeepers for the Internet. People or entities we would pay to sift through all the shit to tell us, here, this is worth your time. I am sort of seeing this happening with a lot of DIY music labels and independent book publishers, etc. For the entrepreneurial person, there is a market for pretty much anyone and anything right now and almost like the Land Rush of 1889, I think that there is a lot of potential for great things to happen but since anyone can do it, there’s a lot of great stuff that gets lost in the shuffle. Do you think we are in a “Dark Ages” of the internet?

 SP: yeah i can kind of see that. i think what that means is there will always be a need (or there will necessarily be) people with really good taste looking to bring shit together and spread it. like look at ‘fluland’ magazine. in the short time they’ve been around, i’ve enjoyed like 80% of what they publish. that’s an insane percentage if you think about it. and it’s all because one person was like, ‘fuck it, this is what i like.’ to me, the internet was always double-edged, sure, there will be a load of shit, but, there will also be shit that gets by that wouldn’t have gotten by with the old model. embrace it. you’re free now. another part of me thinks we are entering the dark ages now, where less is allowed.

3:AM: I know a long time ago you told me you don’t write blurbs. Has that changed?

SP: not really. it’s not that i don’t write them, it’s that the process feels bad or unnatural. like, i have no problem with someone sending me their book, i read it, send them an email and then they ask to use it for a blurb. but to ask for a blurb in advance, i mean, then i’m just reading the book to say something nice about it?  not trying to be a dick and i love to help out however i can, but to me that’s not the way. plus, fuck, most blurbs make me want to piss on the book. the language is so embarrassing.

3:AM: If someone approached you and asked that you mentor them, what would you say?

SP: if that means answering questions they have then sure. it’s an honor. i don’t consider myself some master able to pass on information or even help, but i do have a little bit of a different view of it than i did years ago. i feel i’m able to do this kind of shit better and would be able to provide concrete advice / information. i also kind of feel that the style i strive for, can be used by anyone to tell any story and convey anything. plus, man, if someone honors you with that, it’s pretty shitty to say no. authors / artists who act too high and mighty to help you, or even respond, are trying to create a sense of authority and mystery and far awayness. fuck that. trenches for life.

3:AM: It’s great to be willing to make yourself available like that. It’s always kind of fascinating to me, how receptive writers are to questions and emails about their work or just anything in general. Since I don’t live somewhere that is near any type of place where “writing stuff” happens, my main method of communication (how I talk to other writers) is via email. How do you feel about that? Or, rather, think about it this way, imagine we were having the same conversation right now, but in the nineties, while the internet is still a new thing. Probably, we would either be on the phone or I would be sitting with you, face-to-face. And there would have been a lot of planning involved for us to get together just so I could ask you questions. Whereas now, literally, I can send you anything I want in seconds. Do you feel that this sort of vulnerability or accessibility is a good thing? Yes, authors can choose not to display their email address but pretty much, with a little bit of searching anyone can be reached these days.

 SP: yeah it’s definitely something. i think it’s cool but maybe shouldn’t completely replace all that other stuff. like, after like ten years of this, i have met some really cool people. it’s easy to talk shit about the writing scene / artists and all that but i’ve been humbled by how cool / interesting / nice people have been. and such easy access to communicating with people you like is great, because it’s just, objectively, more freedom. but getting together with people / doing events / etc, is also great. it’s like anything else, some good, some bad, it’s up to you how you wanna use it. i will say that i value actual work or whatever you want to call it, over internet output. like, the internet is great for all the above reasons, but don’t let that be your work. let it help others see your work.

3:AM: Let’s talk about Arada a little bit. Sam Pink writing a movie. We already know what a Sam Pink play is like. What is a Sam Pink movie like? Was the process a pretty close collaboration with the director or was this something you already wrote that is now being adapted to film? And is the title something you came up with?

SP: not sure how much i’m supposed to talk about, but basically this photographer / director from turkey contacted me to ask if i wanted to help him adapt a story. so he wanted me to adapt ideas he had. i wrote it, but i didn’t create it, if that makes sense. i think it should be close to completely done soon. i saw the trailer for it and felt really excited. i don’t fuck with movies / film that much but this guy is great and we’re really good friends now. just another cool person / project i got lucky enough to be a part of. the title means ‘in between’ in turkish.

3:AM: It’s interesting, what you said earlier about Cobra, the film, because growing up, there were like 3 VHS tapes I would watch over and over again: Cobra, Conan the Destroyer and Richie Rich. My parents weren’t big on films so anything I watched came from my aunt who would send VHS tapes of her favourite movies that she had recorded off TV. (My parents were more interested in music, so we had a ton of records). I bring up Cobra because there is a certain something there that I have never seen in any other film. Pretty much, at this point, I know every moment of the film by heart, and I feel that it is the type of film where there is a story within a story that is being told. Perhaps I am looking into this too much but after having Cobra playing the background for so long (almost like a drone) what has that done for you (if anything)?

 SP: yeah i wasn’t big on films either, but all the films i really love, like cobra / commando / bloodsport, are from around that era. it has the same earnest appeal of pro wrestling. the morals are easy, the setup is cool, and then you just want to see cobra fuck shit up, because the other weak ass cops are falling prey to the media. he says something about how as long as they have to play by those bullshit rules and the killer doesn’t, the killer wins. i think i probably put it on repeat because it’s comforting to hear. i think that movie universally appeals to like, loner kids. everyone i know who likes that movie has similar feelings about it, like they had some busted ass copy of it as a kid and they watched it all the time. and for good reason. because cobra rules. other movies are the disease, and it, quite simply, is the cure.

3:AM: Something else I’ve always wanted to address: Sam Pink is not your real name. (Some people might not know this). Explain that.

SP: it wasn’t really a conscious choice.  everything i did in the beginning felt like playing. so i used the name of someone i knew, who has since passed away. i remember reading that one of my favorite poets ‘ar ammons’ used his wife’s stenograph paper to write on, because it felt less important and he could concentrate.  i used to do the same thing with shit i’d draw/paint on.  just playing.

3:AM: One last thing. Now that you’ve returned to Chicago, how does it feel to be back?

SP: feels like i left a decent party at like midnight and then came back at five am.


Sam Pink is 34. Books available through Lazy Fascist Press, and Soft Skull Press. Art for sale at instagram.com/sam_pink_art

Mike Kleine is the author of Lonely Men Club (Inside the Castle, 2018) and other texts.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018.