David L. Ulin
Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:
David L. Ulin, Writer, Editor, and Professor
DG: For years, you worked as the book editor for the LA Times, along with having written for some of the most prestigious newspapers and journals. In this respect, is the transition between editor, poet, and writer mostly seamless, or does it take frequent adjustments to calibrate your voice in accordance with each role?
DLU: It’s always felt natural to me to work in a variety of registers — as a critic and a columnist, as an essayist, as a journalist and teacher, as an editor and poet, as a writer of my own books. I think of something Lynne Sharon Schwartz wrote in the early 1990s: “I had never planned to be a novelist in the first place. I had planned, from the age of seven, to be a writer. A writer writes anything and everything, just as a composer composes anything—not only sonatas or only nocturnes or only symphonies.” Something similar is true of me. One of the impulses that draws me to writing is the opportunity to be versatile. Why wouldn’t one want to do it all? In that sense, the range of work and activities all feeds into the same central source, which I imagine through the lens of literary production. What I mean is that I’m invested in my own production: the essays and stories and poems and books. But part of that production also means participating in literary community. When I review, in that sense, it’s not separate from but rather grows out of my own work, since those pieces often revolve around related concerns. For me, reviewing is a way of operating as a heightened reader … and my experience of reading informs my aesthetics, which in turn informs everything I write. Something similar is true of editing, which I think of as both a curatorial and an authorial process; my hope is that each issue of any publication I edit will work as a kind of collage narrative in its own right. Presently, I’m editing a literary journal, Air/Light, out of USC, and the goal there is to have an overriding vision, or sensibility, while also having each issue stand alone. It’s a fascinating process not least for its serendipity, the idea that often I don’t know what an issue is going to look like until I start to read submissions and discover what we have. Writing is similarly a serendipitous process for me, in which I don’t start out with a plan per se, but maybe a few loose ideas. Will they hang together? Is there anything there? These questions provoke the process of discovery that is necessary for me to engage with my work.
DG: Along with your professional writing activities, you’re also a Professor at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. What are the rewards and challenges that present themselves with not just teaching, but teaching writing specifically, and how do these activities ultimately complement your own work?
DLU: There are many things I love about teaching. First, of course, is working with young writers, encouraging their aesthetic journey, creating a space in the classroom where they can take risks, where they can fail, which is an essential aspect of creative work. I want to listen to them, not only to hear their stories, but also to learn the things they know that I don’t know — which is a lot. I find my mind being opened every time I go to class. It’s exhilarating, and it helps create a necessary connection that enlarges the scope of the work we do together, the inquiries we pursue. I’m a firm believer that the classroom is a place of conversation, and when we’re discussing writing, it’s a conversation in which everyone can participate and learn from each other. I hope they learn as much from me as I learn from them. I also love being in a space where we can talk about making art — in those specific terms — without having to throw up scare quotes, or be ironic about our creative aspirations or what anyone else might think of them.
DG: Does university sometimes interfere and might that paradoxically also have its own positives, at least in terms of having to visualize and set priorities accordingly?
DLU: Certainly, universities are complicated places, with bureaucracies and requirements that often have nothing to do with education in any real sense. But I’ve been fortunate to have worked in great departments, with some visionary administrators, who know how to put the classroom first. I tend to set priorities in my classes in conjunction with the students, and to seek to facilitate a spirit of collaboration among all participants. To that end, I don’t give tests and I try to suggest to students — undergraduates especially — that they not worry about grades, at least in my class. That they will be rewarded for writing with ambition, for biting off more than they can chew.
DG: Along with the teaching material you select, how have your students impacted both your writing habits and aesthetic, and how has this changed since the pandemic?
DLU: The students keep me honest. They keep me on my toes. I have to be as engaged and committed to what’s happening in the classroom as they are, which means I have to listen (that word again) and collaborate. What this means practically is that I’m always updating and adjusting syllabi, even in the middle of the semester. I want to keep the conversation alive. As far as the pandemic, it’s a complicated question. I think we did the best we could in a fluid situation where, for the first several months at any rate, no one had any real idea of what was going on. Switching to online was not ideal, but it allowed us to maintain continuity. And it created some flexibility for students who, for instance, may have had to move back home. I’m fortunate that my classes are mostly small — no more than twelve students in a workshop — so that’s more workable through the flat eye of the screen. Again, the key was the conversation: how to foster it and keep it going, which I think we did. Now that we’re back in person, however, I’m viscerally aware of everything we missed during that period, the dimensionality of the room, of sitting together in a shared space, of talking as a group. It reminds me that literature is fundamentally a collective exercise, that it grows out of, and reflects or responds to, community. And yet, that sense of community is also what kept us going during the pandemic, albeit in a different way.
DG: It seems that the pressures and commitments forced upon us by the modern world are making it increasingly difficult to live the life of a literary citizen. Setting the cliché discussion of technology and its contribution to the decline of literature aside, how have the principles of living as an individual of literature changed from the time you began writing to now?
DLU: To be honest, I’d say I’m more aware of such principles than I was when I started. I’m certainly more outwardly focused than I used to be. I grew up in thrall to the notion of writer as outsider, as maverick (to use a word that’s lost all meaning), as one person against the machine. That sense of mission, if you will, has not so much changed as deepened: As I’ve said, I take it on faith that literature is a community. I didn’t understand that at the beginning. Now, I think I do. That’s not to say I think about readers or anyone else, really, as I’m writing. That would be stifling to me. When I’m working, it’s basically the same as it ever was, myself in conversation with the work at hand, striving to make good sentences, to follow them, to see where the line of the language will lead. Certain approaches have changed; I write much less by hand than I once did, for instance, although I still keep notebooks everywhere. But if there’s been any fundamental shift in my approach, it has to do with … trust is the only word that makes sense. Trust in the material, trust in the process. Trust in the silence of the room. I was never much for outlines; if I know too much about a piece of writing, I lose interest because there’s not enough discovery. But I used to need to know an endpoint, where I was writing toward. Now, I try to avoid any preconceptions. I prefer to make my decisions in the present, to let the text show me what it needs. That’s not to say I’m not constantly percolating, or taking notes as ideas occur to me, just that I’m much more willing to embrace the necessity of serendipity.
DG: Do you miss the days when printed newspapers and journals where the norm, not the exception, or do you think the best days of journalism have yet to arrive?
DLU: I still read a lot of print journals and periodicals, although I also engage with many of those publications through their websites, not least for the online only content there. I recall fondly the primacy of print, and I miss it, but I understand that’s nostalgia, mainly, and I try to stay away from that. Without doubt, we are in the midst of an ongoing shift involving print and digital, but it’s more complicated than an either/or. I want the speed and immediacy of the latter, even as I want to hold the former in my hand. And let’s face it: I edit a digital journal. If it wasn’t for the web, we wouldn’t be able to publish. So I also think it affords a lot of opportunity. Of course, the economic model for literary publications — for all publications, actually — is atrocious, but it was ever thus. Newspapers, though, are different, and we’re still seeing how this plays out. From having worked at the Los Angeles Times, I understand the economics and the financial challenges: not just newsprint and production costs but a dwindling market for print. I subscribe to four newspapers but two of those subscriptions are online only, and as for the other two, Sunday is the only day I read in print. If that’s the case for me, then it suggests how far down this road we’ve gone. At the same time, I don’t think the shift to online is a danger to journalism. The coverage can be equally robust online as in print, and there are enhancements (multimedia elements not least among them) that enlarge a story’s range and scope. The real danger are hedge funds like Alden Global Capital, which currently owns more than 200 papers in the United States, most of which have been effectively stripped for parts. Let’s be clear about this: such a business model and the companies that pursue it are the enemy. Not only of journalism but also of democracy. They degrade the discourse by treating journalism as a commodity. I think there could be great days ahead for journalism, but only if we get the venture capitalists out.
DG: Leaving his atrocious politics aside, Ezra Pound once said that “Literature is news that stays news,” a statement that seems to exalt the former and denigrate the latter, but is this really true? Indeed, there have been countless works of art that have either been forgotten or simply left in the depths of time, while many accounts of the past remain timeless and ever relevant. What are some of the most poignant examples of that in your opinion and do you view perhaps journalism, in that sense, as being imbued with literary and perhaps even poetic qualities?
DLU: If we’re going to look at poetic assessments of literature and news, I prefer William Carlos Williams:
What this means, I think, is that literature aspires to the timeless even as it must be rooted in the specifics of its own moment. That’s not to say art shouldn’t be political. It absolutely should. Even the decision to avoid politics in one’s work (to paraphrase Orwell) is ultimately a political decision. Look at all the astonishing writers who have addressed political conditions and situations, going back to Homer and the Trojan War. As far as the work that is forgotten, I’ve come around to thinking of that as a solace in its way. Think of how many books are published in a year. The vast majority are never even noticed enough to be forgotten. They are essentially released into the void. But isn’t the same true of every one of us? We are all here on a temporary pass. To me, this is humbling, yes — but also exhilarating because it means that we can do whatever we want. If I’m not writing for posterity (and how could I be, really?) then I am free to engage with my own time, my own self, in any way that makes sense to me. I am not writing for everybody or even anybody, but, first and foremost, to express myself; this is true for all of us. I don’t mean that in a narcissistic way, although there’s a narcissistic streak to every artist, but in the sense that we are free. We can say whatever we need to, as Isak Dinesen once noted, “without hope and without despair.” Journalism is a different matter, although without question, it too is literary and poetic. Whatever else it is, it is a form of storytelling … an art, in other words.
DG: What are your thoughts on the current state of literature? In comparison to the past, do you enjoy most of what you read today, or only a little, and what are some recent books you would recommend?
DLU: I think the current state of literature is astonishing. So much good work, so many great writers, so many essential narratives, so much talent on the page. I feel like I’m in a constant state of discovery. In a way, it reminds me of when I first started reading seriously, as if I’m discovering the territory anew. This was an impetus for starting Air/Light, the desire to create a venue that could give space and attention to all this astonishing work. In our first six issues, the writers we have published — Daniel Alarcon, Chris Abani, Matthew Zapruder, Susan Straight, Diane Mehta, Carribean Fragoza, Abigail Thomas, Alex Espinoza, Lynne Thompson, Lilliam Rivera, Pam Houston, to name just a few — are those with whom I’m essentially engaged. I like work that blurs the line. I like work that challenges our expectations. I think of Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Hari Kunzru. I think of the sensational Annie Ernaux. I think of Sophie Calle, who is not a writer per se but includes text as part of her work. I think of the publisher Lisa Pearson, whose press, Siglio, has published three of Calle’s books in the United States.
DG: As an editor, poet, writer, critic, and professor, you have many obligations and deadlines. It’s hard to imagine that you can simply wait for inspiration or even write when you want to, but if you could, when and where would the ideal time be, and, in a perfect world, what would a typical working day look like for you?
DLU: For me, what makes the work-day typical is that it is never typical. Each day brings its own challenges and necessities. I will say that I like to do a lot of things. I like to be busy because it keeps me from getting in my own way. My daily practice has changed throughout my writing life because of shifting necessities. I was, for a long time, a night owl, a night writer, sleep in and write all night. That changed when we had children and I had to be attuned to their schedules. It changed again when I took the job at the Los Angeles Times; I had to write in the morning, before I went to work. It changed once more during the pandemic when I took to getting up very early to walk. To accommodate that, I found myself going to sleep earlier, often before 10 pm. Now I am very firmly a writer of the morning and early afternoon; 9:30 to 3, let’s say. Depending on the project or other factors, I might write shorter or longer on a given day, and there are days I don’t write at all. But a typical day generally includes a mix of writing and reading and editing, of conversations with colleagues via email or phone or Zoom. I read in the late afternoons or early evenings, and heavily so on the weekends. And depending what I’m working on or thinking about, I take notes throughout the day.
DG: Did the pandemic offer more opportunities to write, or, on the contrary, far less, and why?
DLU: It offered both to me at various points, and a return to various modes of expression I thought I had set aside. In the early days of the pandemic, I found myself writing short essays about the experience of living in a plague time: writing almost as a way of reckoning. I had been working on a book when COVID hit, but I very quickly understood that this wasn’t going to be useful, at least in the short term; the book is a memoir, a memory book, and I couldn’t do that work in the present tense atmosphere of the early days. So I set it aside (I went back to it last summer) and wrote first the essays before moving into other territories. One of these was a novel, which I had worked on a few years earlier, until I hit a wall. A few months into lockdown, I had the thought to re-read those pages, and in that process, I began to see where the book might go. I returned to it in September 2020 and finished a draft in January 2021. It was an unlikely balm to work on an invented narrative — not autobiographical, in a world where COVID hadn’t taken place. The three or four hours a day I spent writing were like a retreat. And yet, the book also took on many of the issues that I, like everyone, was facing: isolation, alienation, loneliness, fear. I also began writing songs again in late 2020. This was perhaps the most unexpected turn in my writing; I’d done a lot of that sort of work in my twenties but it had been more than thirty years. I can’t say why exactly I went down this rabbit hole, except that I’d started playing music again during lockdown, as well. And that experience led to a few stray riffs or verses, which eventually coalesced into something more coherent and complete.
DG: What are you reading and or working on at the moment?
DLU: Currently, I am doing final edits on the novel, which will be coming out in the fall of 2023. I’m also back to the memoir, and of course, I continue to write op-eds and reviews and other essays, as I have regularly done. As for reading, there are books stacked all over this house in various stages of completion, but the two with which I’m occupied at present are Claire Dederer’s book-length work of criticism, Monsters, and Percival Everett’s new novel Doctor No. Both are exquisitely written and deftly rendered, and both are full of fascinating and provocative ideas.
About David L. Ulin
David L. Ulin is the author or editor of more than a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, which was shortlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, and The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and Ucross Foundation. The former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times, he is a professor of English at the University of Southern California, where he edits the literary journal Air/Light. Most recently, he has edited Didion: The 1960s and 70s and Didion: The 1980s and 90s, for Library of America.