Strange Routes with David Shook

Becky Hirsch talks life and learning with David Shook.

Visual art by Samuel Lee

David Shook is a poet, translator and Idyllwild Arts Academy alum from 2004. His work has been published in Oxford MagazinePoetryPN ReviewWorld Literature Today, and others. He has translated many authors works into English, including Víctor Terán, Oswald de Andrade, Roberto Bolaño, and Mario Bellatin. Shook currently lives in Los Angeles, where he edits Molossushis online journal of international literature, and publishes Phoneme Books. Here he sits down in Birchard Writing Center to talk with Becky Hirsch, a junior at Idyllwild Arts Academy.

BH: As a translator, someone who’s had experience at Idyllwild and at Oxford University, and has lived in other countries, do you see any particular differences in poems from different languages? Do you think any language is better at expressing a certain kind of poem? And do you have a language in which you prefer to read?

DS: I believe in a basic universality of expression across all languages. I don’t support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the idea that language is entirely responsible for shaping thought. I think there’s a murkier relationship there. I do think, of course, that some languages have a greater facility of expression. It might be easier to write a poem in Zapotec about a traditional palm wine, but that’s mostly a matter of practicality. They happen to have a word for “palm wine” and every time I’m talking about it in a poem I have to say “palm wine,” which doesn’t sound very nice. In terms of reading, I love English language poetry. I think it’s the best in the world. That said, I’m not sure the best poets in the world write in English.

BH: English has a history of just being a conglomerate of languages, kind of thrown together with a thousand synonyms for every word. Is that what helps it write “the best poetry in the world”?

DS: Most languages absorb ideas, absorb words, absorb descriptive bits, even structural bits from other languages. Partially, it’s a socioeconomic thing. English is spread around the world. It was and still is a great language of empire, and [there’s a lot to be said] about that, there’s a whole political argument to be made. [That imperial history of the language has] produced art and enriched the English language. You’ve got Singaporean English (Singlish), where you incorporate Chinese grammatical markers into English and it works. It makes sense. It’s its own effective system of communication.

BH: You’re mind seems to jump around countries really easily. I know you’ve spent time in Mexico, spent time in Africa, and spent a good chunk of time in California.

DS: And I’m from Texas.

BH: That’s a whole other country.

DS: It is. It’s its own world.

BH: So how do you feel that all that movement, and all that personal experience with other countries and other areas and other kinds of peoples, writers, and writing has affected your world view?

DS: That’s a big question.

BH: Yeah, but you do seem as if you have a handle on it.

DS: I can’t say how it has affected my worldview but I know that it definitely has. All of these experiences, just in terms of basic subject matter in my work, come up again and again. I think that more than anything, and this sort of comes from my background in linguistics too, I’m sort of interested in the multiplicity of voices that surround us on a global scale but also on a much smaller scale, you know, the multiplicity of voices in Idyllwild, California. There are all sorts of people here, a radical mix of people, not just among the student body but the people in town. I was talking to someone in town this morning who buys forty pounds of peanuts each week to feed the squirrels, like an old squirrel lady, instead of an old bird lady. I guess there’s that same interest, ultimately, that I’ve been fortunate through circumstances, work and life, to get to experience and explore a lot of different places.

BH: Do you see a difference in the kind of people you’ve experienced in Idyllwild versus the kind of people you’ve met in other parts of the world?

DS: I would hesitate to say that I think specifically here there’s a great, respectful and supportive community for young artists, for the curiosity that’s required of the artist. There’s a sort of nurturing that creative people need and the freedom and the leeway that they need to experiment and explore, which is unique and admirable but certainly this isn’t the only place in the world that has that.

BH: You call it a nurturing and respectful place for young artists. How do you feel about your time personally at Idyllwild Arts?

DS: I reflect on it fondly. I haven’t been here in quite a while. I think I was last here in 2005. My time here was unusual. I was only here one year. It was a strange year for me but … I think a lot of my lifelong friendships, at this point in my life, were made here at Idyllwild. On my street in L.A. there are four alums and we all still dialogue about our art, about what we’re doing and it’s been neat to see everyone come into their own as artists post-Idyllwild, and not everyone has become an artist by profession but you can see the artistic growth in all the people I met at Idyllwild.

BH: How did you come to Idyllwild? What was your road to get here?

DS: It was my last year of high school and I’d been serious about writing poetry since the summer after my sophomore year of high school. I’d studied at Stanford with the Wallace Stegner fellows, with Gabrielle Calvocoressi and Matthew Dougherty, two great poets. Now Gaby’s actually in L.A. I see her all the time. But I’d been writing poetry, at that point, my junior year of high school, I was in Texas, really unhappy and I basically just begged my parents to let me come study writing. I was very much a student that wanted to be here, someone who was very invested in it. It wasn’t always easy. I feel like I did have some frustrating experiences. I felt like even coming here, I was very focused on poetry and I very much new what I wanted to do and the forced experimentation in other genres and in other things, although I now see it as very healthy and even then I recognized that as much as I might have grumbled and complained about it.

BH: It’s a difficult experience, coming here as a one year senior. I think it takes a while until the faculty are really convinced that your focus really is your focus.

DS: And rightfully so.

BH: How do you think the school has changed since you left? Do you feel any difference in the place being back here now?

DS: There’s been turnover in faculty, especially in creative writing faculty. I think you guys have a really good director [Kim Henderson], I think Katherine [Factor, the poetry teacher] is a really great poet, I really admire her work. She tells me about you students all the time, about what greats poets you are. Even having been a student here and aware of the quality of our writing, I was very impressed, especially this afternoon when we were doing our book blurbs and just talking about book reviews. It just continues to impress me, as familiar as I am with it. The biggest thing that hasn’t changed is that spirit of community and curiosity and creativity. It’s still here and I hope it will be for a long time.

BH: Do you have a favorite Idyllwild story from your time here as a student?

DS: I have a lot of good stories. I had a car. I was a boarding student but I had a secret car, because Idyllwild’s just too small, I couldn’t stay here on the weekends. So I had a car and I’d hide it in town and I’d leave. I’d go to L.A. or even all the way up to Santa Barbara, so there were a lot of good times. There’s once we almost got arrested in Hemet. We decided to come back up to the school during the day, which is a little riskier. We’d normally try to do it right at dusk so people couldn’t recognize us on the drive up the hill. So for some reason we got the idea that, to disguise ourselves, we should dress up in black face. And we got pulled over by the cops, in black face, at the train track in Hemet. And immediately we were surrounded by six cop cars and they called out on their speakers to turn the car off and put the keys on the roof. It was pretty scary. More than anything I was scared they would call the school to validate our story and then it’d come out that I had this illegal car. But it didn’t happen. We sort of talked our way of it.

BH: What were they arresting you for?

DS: Apparently that week there’d been a string of convenience store robberies in Hemet, perpetrated by men in black face. Incredible coincidence. But that’s a fond memory that took place just slightly off the hill. But more than events, I think a lot of the conversations that I had at Idyllwild still linger in my memory. And just laughing a lot, having a good time, enjoying the company of fellow writers and even our teachers.

BH: It seems like you have been able to make a fairly decent living in your art, which, you can tell from the experiences of other alumni, isn’t always the case. You can’t always make it in your art form. Whether it’s book reviewing or poetry, at least you are connected to writing.

DS: Certainly. I’ve also worked a day job in community-based development but I think I’ve always been fortunate in my ability to work and hold jobs that don’t inhibit my writing life. If anything they feed it, they teach me things, they allow me to keep curious. And tonight at the reading I’ll be reading an excerpt from an essay about dancing with the president of Burundi, and you know if I hadn’t had a day job I wouldn’t have been able to dance with the president of Burundi, so I think there are ways, as difficult as it is to sometimes admit to yourself, especially in an economically unfeasible field like poetry, there are ways to stay sane and to keep writing and to still make a living. But you’re not going to do it selling poems. I think it’s important to be realistic about that.

BH: And think outside of that straightforward path.

DS: Exactly. I think one of the biggest things I wish I had known as a student at Idyllwild is how important it is to be entrepreneurial and pursue all sorts of ideas. Most of them won’t pan out but every once in a while they do and I have silly stories, like writing my moustache wax sponsor and trading poems for haircuts, but there’s also more serious ideas. Presenting yourself as a talented poet or writer can land you a job writing copy for an ad agency, and making money for it. Just the idea that, as a writer, you’ve got to be an entrepreneur, a self-promoter, so that you can continue to do what you want to do is really important.

BH: From the work I’ve seen on your websites like Molossus and MANIFESTOH! and just going out and finding book reviewing as career path, it does seem like you have worked really hard to keep yourself in the writing business.

DS: I’m also very skeptical of the writing “business.” I avoid the writing mega-conferences. I’m somewhat repelled by the occasional, or more than occasional, provincialism of writers. While that’s great and it’s really important to support your work, I think we need to get outside of that and break the boundaries open. Why stay within any sorts of boundaries?

BH: Do you mean genre?

DS: I guess I mean more in terms of life experience. I mean don’t let being a poet or being a fiction writer limit. If anything, it should open up your life experience and possibility. It should open up your imagination not just on the page but in the way you live your life.

BH: I think for all writers, any job you get influences your work and it’s all educational.

DS: And I think it’s important to maintain that attitude.

BH: That sort of entrepreneurial spirit.

DS: Also just that the things that you’re doing that aren’t writing can feed into your writing. That they’re not necessarily contradictory.

BH: So what kind of other occupations have you had?

DS: I’ve mostly worked in community-based development, in East Central Africa and indigenous Latin America, but also in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Southern Mexico, which is also where I translate poetry, also in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa. That’s most of it. Most of my professional experience is in that development field. I’ve had other shitty jobs, of course. In college I’d evaluate graduate students from abroad, I’d evaluate their English to see if they qualified to be TA’s, which was a lot fun. But I’ve had all sorts of terrible, tiny jobs too.

BH: You had something of an unusual route through college to finally graduating from Oxford with an MFA. How did that come about?

DS: At Idyllwild I was an exemplary college applicant. I probably applied to fifteen schools, had a bunch of scholarships, and just kind of burnt out and decided to reject all of them. And I moved to Costa Rica and worked at an orphanage for about six months. But then through family and through my girlfriend at the time I wound up at the University of Oklahoma, which six months before I would have found laughable. But it turned out to be a great place. If I hadn’t been there I wouldn’t have been able to intern at World Literature Today and start publishing in major literary magazines as an undergraduate, which is basically how I built up my resume for Oxford and also my early, large-scale publishing experience, beyond editing Parallax, was there. So it was a little strange, but it was great. And I think state schools are a great choice for writers. They’re so much cheaper and there’s a lot of great writers often in these regional institutions that we kind of overlook in applying to schools. Just the opportunity as an undergraduate to be conceptualizing issues of a magazine, to be in contact with Pulitzer winning writers was huge for me and it wouldn’t have happened if I had gone to a more brand name school.

BH: Since college and since graduating from Idyllwild, you’ve joined some pretty prominent literary groups like the National Book Critics Circle, you’ve been published in Oxford Magazine, involved with World Literature Today, and those are all pretty big name institutions. What would you say was your most valuable experience?

DS: I think most of my most valuable personal experiences have all come through translating. There’s a really deep bond that’s formed when you translate someone’s work and some of my sweetest and deepest friendships are with poets whose work I’ve translated. Especially people like Víctor Terán who writes in Zapotec, a poet who’s been marginalized most of his career because of his language, to be able to translate him and to make his work more widely available beyond the prejudices of the contemporary Mexican poetry community. It’s been really valuable. My friendship with Marcelo Ensema Nsang, the Guinean poet who was tortured in the 70s, is another really special friendship that’s come out of that. I think those are, if not my favorite or most meaningful literary experiences, definitely some of the most meaningful ones.

BH: You just mentioned the documentary you just made [about Marcelo Ensema Nsang].

DS: In Equatorial Guinea in West Africa. Yeah, we made that in March. Hopefully we’ll have a first cut at the end of November and then submit to festivals next year.

BH: So is that what’s up next?

DS: I guess there’s a lot of stuff up next. That’s definitely on the docket. Also, I have a new non-profit publishing house that’ll publish books in translation, from Mario Bellatin to Stalin. We’re doing Stalin’s poetry that he wrote as a teenager, translated from the Georgian, the first literary translation. Then I’ve also got a new series of manifestos that I’ve been translating. Most of them are from the 20s to the 60s, more or less, but some later, 70s and 80s. The manifesto, it’s one of the most fun literary genres there is but because it’s kind of a strange genre it’s most often translated by academics with no real sense of poetry. So that’s been a really fun project and in November, I do a really big reading in L.A. And of course I’m still trying to place my own poems. I have a new book-length translation project as well and a new book I’m working on of travel essays. So, a lot.

BH: Your story is  excellent for someone looking to someday find a way into writing professionally and I just want to thank you so much for your time.

DS: Of course.

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Becky Joy Hirsch is a sixteen-year-old Californian who has never held a steady job. She frequently finds herself speaking in public with no idea how she got there. She hopes to see this year’s Parallax published without a hitch and eventually graduate and possibly go on to do something with her life.