Brian Sonia-Wallace

Short Interview

Poet Brian Sonia-Wallace performing at the DA Center for the Arts on February 21, 2016 (Source: Chaffey Breeze photographer Liz Duncan)

(This article was originally posted on the website for Chaffey College’s newspaper, The Breeze, and will appear in volume 14 of Chaffey College’s literary journal, The Chaffey Review.)

Poet Brian Sonia-Wallace (aka the Rent Poet) is a poet and person worth knowing. His poetry is rooted in the spirit of an economy of influence where the value of creative work exists simultaneously in a market and gift economy, but the value that makes it meaningful to readers is not commodity value — the transaction cost — but gift value — which is priceless. His poetry is, quite literally, based on the idea of an exchange of gifts between author and reader. Articulated best in his own words from the Foreword of his new poetry book I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back (Yak Press, 2016), he writes:

I’ve been doing this thing I call RENT Poet as a job since September of 2014, when I challenged myself to pay my rent using only the money I made from writing poetry. I take my typewriter and a TV tray table out in public and do my poetic business with complete strangers. They tell me what they need a poem about or who they need a poem for, and I write them that poem on the spot. No fanfare, no candlelit hours and muses. I write poems for cash. It’s about demystifying the writing process, about making poetry relevant again in people’s lives, about creating a society of patrons for the arts starting at $1.

To rephrase, even though Sonia-Wallace has been charging a small fee for poetry commissions, the value that is most important to the reader — the commissioner — is the gift value of the poem itself. Of course, the gift value of the poem is subjective for the reader for whom Sonia-Wallace is writing. This means the poem’s gift value is partly based on their influences and their experiences and their environment, but there is one universal — empathy. By writing poems — using human thought, aka language — he is trying to imagine complexly the life of strangers. Because language is one of the closest ways to experiencing what it is like to be inside the consciousness of another human being, Sonia-Wallace’s poetry is like empathy training wheels. Or as theatre, to borrow the metaphor implemented as book structure in I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back.

Sonia-Wallace is also a human being of vitality. After having had the chance to hear him read some poems at the DA Center for the Arts in Pomona, CA, it is clear he is invigorated about what he writes. His poetry readings are filled with charisma, but, more notably, his reading tone is not aimed above the audience or below the audience — it is aimed to the audience. Even in his poetry readings, empathy is prioritized. Luckily, Sonia-Wallace was generous even to answer fourteen short-interview questions via email about his work as a poet.

Poet Brian Sonia-Wallace performing at the DA Center for the Arts on February 21, 2016 (Source: Chaffey Breeze photographer Liz Duncan)

1) How long have you been writing poetry and/or been interested in poetry?

I’ve been writing poetry since I was ten. I was a horrible typist, and my mom would make me type a page a day to practice. Well, I quickly realized that in poetry you could put the line breaks wherever you wanted, so a page went a lot faster. I wrote a page of poetry every day that year. I guess you could say that my existence as a poet stemmed from my laziness. But that experience of writing a page a day got me into the practice of writing.

I grew up on a lot of Ogden Nash and Dr. Seuss. Read Robert Frost, Pablo Neruda, Shakespeare, and T.S. Eliot going into high school. I didn’t study poetry in college (my degree is in Sustainable Development) so I am constantly trying to catch up, reading poems and books here and there. Because I write poetry on-the-spot for people based on their topic or word, a lot of them share their favorite poets with me or ask me for mine. It’s a good way to realize the depth of my ignorance and discover new poets. I always think of myself as a performance artist first, with my background in directing theatre, and a poet second. I’m very interested in creating experiences for an audience, and my vehicle for doing that is words — is poetry.

2) Do you have aspirations to write short stories, non-fiction, or novels, too? Why choose poetry as your format for writing?

I mostly write poems and plays, and a lot of the work I do on plays is collaborative, devising work with the actors so everyone is saying lines that they’ve written. In this process, my role is as a curator and word-collage artist. Other than spoken word, most of the poetry I write is commissioned work based on stories and topics people give me, so that is collaborative as well, in its own way. But I do also write short stories, and recently have been called on to do a lot more journalism, criticism, and academic writing. I like this kind of writing, and always play with crossing genres.

For my first book, I Sold These Poems, Now I Want Them Back (Yak Press, 2016), each chapter heading is a stage direction. The whole book is made of only poems I’ve already sold, and I try to re-create for the reader a little bit of the scene of how each was created. The goal is to make the experience of reading the book an active experience like a play — an event — for the reader.

I think we put novels on a pedestal. Fuck novels.

There’s a whole industry in outsourcing pulp fiction (erotica, detective stories, horror) to India. I’m fascinated by that. I could outsource a novel about outsourcing. I’m interested in conceptual stuff, obviously.

3) What do you think the duty of a poet is, regardless of time period? Is it political, making art for art’s sake, personal therapy, empathy, etc.?

I think a poet’s duty depends a lot on context, I don’t think you can separate it from time and place. I write a lot about technology and do experiments with commodification and capitalism. These are the pillars of my time, my context.

I’m a big fan of the idea that the personal is political, when I write about online dating or Facebook profiles of people who have committed suicide, I don’t think my job is to pass judgement or demonize technology. Our lives are enabled by technology and we are different people for it. I think the poet’s job is to look at how we have new bodies and minds because of how we live. We are cyborgs now.

I feel similarly about money, which is a technology in itself. My generation, Millennials, the recession generation, have been defined by shifting access to work and capital in a context of institutional power and debt. For many who saw themselves as the natural heirs to the American middle class, time and relationships have been defined by menial work and rising rents. My writing is necessarily a response to these issues.

I’ve also lived abroad pretty extensively and the most important thing I’ve taken away is perspective — things don’t have to be like this. This is not a value judgement. I think humans are intelligent and resilient, we can adapt any context to suit us. But it’s also important to acknowledge that a diversity of experiences are possible. That’s the task of poetry, perhaps: to expand the realm of the possible.

As for poetry being therapeutic, I think that’s inevitable. But there’s a difference between making art for public consumption and making it for yourself. I wrote a lot of bad poetry in college, figuring myself out. It was a great tool, but maybe not art. I think, to be effective, poetry should have an intention, an awareness of an ‘other’ outside of the self.

4) Do you view technology as a good thing or a bad thing? Why? How do you think this has affected the writing and reading of poetry?

I’m not one to pass moral judgement, but I am working on getting Instagram famous. Here’s a story: the top poet on Instagram, who self published a book on Amazon, outsold last year’s Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry by a factor of 100. Of course the traditional gatekeepers of art are scared. It’s all about connecting with your audience now. It’s a populist moment.

That said, this Instagram guy’s poetry is dreadful. But it speaks to people, so there you go.

I think tech is affecting writing and readership, but, more interestingly, shifting our capacity for emotion and humanity. I’m fascinated by how the content of poetry will change in the face of changing technology, not just how its distribution will change. I’ve started writing poetry in emoji, and am very excited at Facebook’s move to include automatic emoji as responses. Writing is getting closer and closer to speech — it’s all instantaneous, and now we are bringing in pictograms to show tone of voice.

5) Do you feel like you belong to a generation of poets, such as with (if you know any) David Berman, Catherine Wagner, Dean Young, Matt Hart, Miranda July, Tao Lin, Steve Roggenbuck, D.S. Chapman, Frederick Seidel, Arielle Greenberg, Karyna McGlynn, and Mira Gonzalez?

Your poetry education is way better than mine and I’m going to spend the next month looking all these people up.

6) What do you dislike about technology?

My laptop takes way too long to start up. Maybe I need to defrag it?

I was raised on tech. Might as well ask ‘what do you dislike about roads?’ Here’s one more story: the Ancient Greeks decried writing as ‘the death of memory.’ They were terribly afraid that this new technology would wreck the minds of their young people.

Ain’t nothing new.

7) Do you have a poem you want to share right at this moment? What is it?

People on dating apps always ask me to write them poems. I always respond, ‘pay me.’ That said, I post work frequently on Instagram.

8) What are some of your favorite books? Movies? Albums?

I’m a big fan of postmodern literature, from Murakami to David Foster Wallace, and of the literature of alienation, like Kafka or Kundera or Camus. I think everyone should read Debt (2011) by anthropologist David Graeber, because it sketches out our modern lives in relationship to the technology of money by tracing that technology’s evolution. I think Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network) is one of the better writers working in TV/film right now, and I watch a lot of comedy news (ala The Daily Show) because I’m human.

9) How have you made a living as a poet so far? Do you have plans to change this in the future, such as by teaching or pursuing other interests, too?

I moved back to LA in 2011 (from the UK) and heard a story on NPR about a guy in San Francisco who wrote poems for passersby on a manual typewriter and made enough money to quit his day job. I promptly borrowed a typewriter from friends and tried it out at a few events. In September, 2014 I took on a challenge to pay my entire rent this way — hence the name, RENT Poet. I ended up making minimum wage on the street from my words. Since then, I’ve been trying to push my street poet practice into polite society, writing for big cultural institutions and at corporate gigs and weddings. It’s ‘cute.’ It’s ‘original.’ But mostly, it pays my rent.

My typewriter case reads, “Presence is a Commodity.” People are paying for me to be there, writing poems, and the actual quality or artistic integrity of the poetry is second to how it makes the real people standing in front of me feel.

Of course, my street cred will only get me so far. I published my first book at the beginning of the year with a small press and am continuously trying to get more institutional credibility to go with my event money. I do also teach here and there to supplement with income with regular trickles of cash. I am just getting to the point where I can turn down work.

This is the part where I need to acknowledge my privilege in being able to do what I do: I’m a young white man, I come from a supportive middle class family, I got a degree without debt, and I worked at a nice white collar job and saved up money for a couple years before embarking on this path. Most of my friends would not be able to do what I do, because they have actual responsibilities. I am allowed to live in blissful poverty like some sort of capitalist monk because of my incredible support network and the way I am perceived in society. When I’m older, it won’t work, which is why I’m trying to parlay my current tenuous financial stability into entrenchment in the cultural institutions that give credibility and create livings for ‘career artists.’ Being an artist is being an entrepreneur and small business owner, and all the same risks, warnings, and start-up needs apply. I had a headstart and I’m still playing catch-up.

10) What inspires you? For example, when you wake up in the morning, do you tell yourself something to encourage you to work hard and be excited for the day?

I wake up and do what I want. It’s the punk slacker dream with a veneer of business sense and a good gimmick. One of my explicit goals is not to work that hard. I think the puritan work ethic is a scourge on American cultural life and I want nothing to do with it. That’s not to say I’m not rigorous and meticulous with everything I do. I just hate the glorification of work for its own sake. But I’m trying to sound cooler with this answer than I am. I do really care and I work my ass off. I just try to remain cynical and ironically detached about the whole thing and roll my eyes at those feel-good “you-go-girl” mantras.

My goal is not to make the most money possible, it’s to need to work as little as possible and to do the most fulfilling work possible in that time, leaving the rest of my time open for bettering society or watching cats on YouTube. I like making corporations bleed through the nose for poetry, and I like being able to do a lot of gigs and collaborations for free. I like the accelerationist prediction that technological advances will lead to plenty of resources for all, without anyone having to work — with all the time and no duties, the argument goes, everyone becomes philosophers and artists. Plato grins from his grave. I see this as preferable to the alternative future I see manifesting itself, where everyone works in HR and Marketing.

11) What is a memorable and embarrassing moment that you’ve had?

I do a lot of English -Spanish bilingual poetry and love writing this way to connect to people in LA. That said, sometimes I put my foot in it. One time I made a metaphor with chicharrón and this stately Salvadoran lady thought I was calling her fat. Not my finest hour.

12) Do you have any preference for the brand of shoes you wear? Jeans/pants?

I’m not much of a brand person, don’t care much about clothes. I do have a hat I tend to wear when doing poetry events — in college, I used to put on a hat and call myself a poet. It’s a costume piece that lets me be someone else, lose my self-consciousness. To this day, when people ask me, “what do you need to be a poet” I say, “a cool hat.” Mine is an old paperboy-style cap.

13) What is the coolest dream you have had that you can remember?

I don’t usually remember my dreams. When my first book was being published, I had a stress dream about it — here’s the description I sent my editor at Yak Press. It has every one of my anxieties about writing bundled into one:

I had my first anxiety dream about the book last night! So surreal. In my dream, the [books] arrive as unbound, loose-leaf paper and I despair at stapling them together. A friend in Glasgow, Scotland, promises to help, but he sends them to a website that does felting, for whatever reason, and they’re turned into sort-of plush colorful toys. Worst of all, it’s a free website so they put their own branding all over it, and to fit the felt format a bunch of lines, especially the dedication, have to be changed to bad spoken word lines.

14) What advice would you give to young people nowadays (both for life and for pursuing creative interests)?

I am a young person, don’t take advice from me! That said, my advice from my brief experience, college, and life is all about networks of people. People will get you jobs, will make you famous, will make you tea, will be your friends. So don’t be an asshole. In college you have space, alongside class, to make cultivating relationships your job. My success as a poet is exactly as big as the number of people who know of me and will pay for my words. For folks wanting to be artists, get interested in money. Look at entrepreneurship. Look at grant-writing. Maybe intern with a management company. Know how to do an Excel budget. See what the behind-the-scenes looks like — like any other world, in the arts, if you want to know what is really happening, you have to follow the money.

If you liked the article, then hit the ❤ button below, and, if you cannot get enough, here are links for more about poet Brian Sonia-Wallace (aka the Rent Poet):

You can order his book from his website here.

You can also order his book from Yak Press here and from Amazon here.

You can learn more about him from his website here.

You can follow him on Twitter here.

You can follow him on Instagram here.

You can look him up on Facebook here.

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