Joel Landmine is an inspiration in today’s fractured cultural popscape.
Admiring a writer’s work is one thing. Easy to do if they’re talented. But admiring them as a person is quite another. Typically, the ones I’ve met are stellar human beings with hang-ups, hangovers and so forth, but nothing deal-breaking in terms of interpersonal harmony.
Joel Landmine is an authentically cool cat I know somewhat from my Bay Area days. He effortlessly evokes the popular image of “ a poet” though (again) more in the musical vein of Tom Waits and Lou Reed than Dylan Thomas or E.E. Cummings. Naturally, Charles Bukowski springs to mind, but that’s really due to lazy association than accuracy. For one thing, Joel Landmine looks more like a suave punk rocker than a sloppy old drunk. Plus he’s a sweetheart in person. His effusive charm and natural affability permeate all of his social media posts, as does his naked, often brutal honesty about his own personal challenges. This is what makes him so likable, relatable, accessible, and genuine both as a person and as a poet.
The two are both interchangeable and intrinsically intertwined. Like, dig:
Simple question: why poetry? Especially in these increasingly illiterate times.
Fuck, man. If you find out tell me. As my friend Bucky often says, there’s something singularly repulsive about the sentence, “I wrote a poem, and I’d like you to read it.” It’s embarrassing to tell people you’re a poet. But that’s what I ended up being good at. So, just a bad roll, I guess. When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a standup comic. But I’m not that funny and I don’t like leaving the house very much. If I could play guitar or sing or something, I’d do that instead.
That said, I’ve noticed that saying “I’m a writer,” is a lot like saying, “I’m a musician.” It gives people very little information. Do you play 3rd violin in the London Philharmonic? Do you write jingles? Do you play at weddings and bar mitzvahs or what?
So saying “I’m a poet,” is like saying, “I’m in a band.” It conveys slightly more information, but not much. It could mean quite a lot of things, and most of them would make most people roll their eyes. My work tends to be tiny stories. So like short stories, but with more pretension and less plotting and character development I guess. Shit, I just rolled my eyes reading that sentence back. “Why poetry?” Fuck.
I mean, there’s a lotta poetry that’s great to read, but it’s mostly terrible to talk about. But sometimes somebody will really connect with something I wrote, it’ll help them through a painful time, or think about their experience from a new perspective, the way a good song might. And that’s pretty gratifying, so that’s maybe why I do it. Even if I’m not saying anything very important or comforting, I’d like to maybe help a few people feel less alone.
Do you enjoy reading your poetry aloud as much as writing it, and how do the experiences differ from a strictly gut level POV?
I’ve thought a lot about this. Until that first book came out people mostly heard me much more than read me. I do a lot of my work on the page, and it doesn’t always translate to the mic. There are some pieces I’ve never read out for that reason. I'm not a monologist, you know?
But they’re certainly very separate skill sets and very different experiences. I mean the live performance is fundamentally different from the solitary pursuit, yeah? Some people are great writers, but terrible performers. Some are great on the mic, but can’t write for shit. A few can do both. A lot can do neither.
I often joke that one of the occupational hazards of being a poet is that you have to go to poetry readings and listen to poets read poetry. Like I’m sayin’, there’s a lotta different ways that can go. And most of them are real bad. But when it’s good, it’s really, really good. So that can be pretty exhilarating, both as a spectator and as a performer. Just like with shows, there’s a lot of mediocrity, but when it’s on... That shared experience can really be somethin’.
It also feels good to make people laugh. Like I said, I wanted to be a comedian as a kid. I read at a variety show once with a bunch of comics. Some of them told me afterward that I was funny. That was way more exciting than any literary journal could ever be. My "dead friend" material really killed that night. Go figure.
You have quite a cult following, especially in and around your native Oakland. Does this help sustain your creative drive, or are you your own target audience?
Really?! I always thought I was pretty peripheral. But I guess I’m the only poet that the crime fiction guys invite out to read, so that’s cool. My schtick is kind of “poetry for people that hate poetry.” I think maybe my self-perception is fucked up though. I always think of my work as quiet and mundane, and then people use words like "brutal" and "visceral." I dunno, man.
As far as the latter, it’s important on the one hand that I stay true to my voice, that it’s not hacky schmaltz, what do I have if not my voice? I mean, I can't dance so. But on the other if nobody reads it, or (even worse) lots of people read it but they don't understand it or it doesn’t make them feel anything, then it’s worse than nothing.
That’s a tough line to walk. Writers on the slam tip, or who are overly lyrical or abstract, or Bukowski wannabes that strain for grit and offend for the sake of offense often seem to lapse into self-parody. Nobody likes being pandered to, but I also don’t get when writers (or musicians or filmmakers or whatever), seem to be actively against the audience. What's the point? What good is communication without connection? I’m paraphrasing someone here, I think it’s probably Vonnegut, but I’m basically trying to say something along the lines of “Isn’t it miserable, and wonderful, and hilarious and heartbreaking, and plain old fuckin’ weird just to be a person?”
I've never really fucked with epics or heroes or saints or straight up villains. When shit is too grand, or important, or impenetrable it lacks the texture that being alive does. Like you could be on a mission to save the earth, or in the midst of the greatest romance imaginable, or be the toughest motherfucker since Carl Panzram, or you could have been diagnosed with cancer this morning or whatever, and you could still sneeze with your mouth full, or get a Spice Girls song stuck in your head, or catch your foot in a crack on the sidewalk and just miss actually falling down but still feel embarrassed even though nobody saw. You understand?
So anyway, that whole "only be true to yourself and fuck each and every other person" shit is cowardly bullshit. People need people. Anybody says different is just shoutin' sour grapes. So a writer needs readers. That whole "You're just not [adjective] enough to understand my work," is cowardly bullshit too. As I've gotten older, I've realized that there's so much art and music in the world, that if you have to explain why it's good, then it's not good. It doesn't have to be for everybody, but it has to be for somebody, you know?
What are your influences, literary or otherwise?
My literary tastes are pretty pedestrian. I really like the short story as a form probably better than any other format, so cats like Carver and Denis Johnson, this dude Breece D’J Pancake (whose name I’ll never ever be able to pronounce) are really big for me. The nasty Roald Dahl stories for adults, even like Stephen King’s short stories are incredible. Vonnegut’s real big for me because he showed me that being sweet and sincere and being sardonic and cynical aren’t mutually exclusive. I like Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Cummings, and Gil Scott Heron. There are some local people I really admire for the way the write about important shit in a really human way like Vanessa Rochelle Lewis and Tongo Eisen Martin.
But what I really love is music and movies. I like like Fred McDowell, Otis Redding, The Circle Jerks and The Cramps, Brenton Wood, Big Youth, and Roy Orbison or Chalino Sanchez, Hank Williams, Charlie Feathers, Nina Simone, that sort of thing. John Waters and The Twilight Zone, and Herschel Gordon Lewis or Alex De La Iglesia.
If my tastes determined my work, ideally I'd pretty much just be the band The Gories. But I don't think any of that necessarily comes across in my writing. As far as influences that do come across, there are three people that most often have me saying "Fuck, I wish I wrote that!" John Prine, Bill Withers, and Jonathan Richman. Folks don't give songwriters enough credit. Those guys are all geniuses at expressing really complicated human truths by telling everyday stories in deceptively simple language. That's way more difficult than most people think, and that's what I aspire to.
What’s next for you?
Things Change, my second book, is coming out soon on Punk Hostage Press. The first book was mostly about street shit, but somewhere between here and there I fucked around and got grown, while the rest of the world seems to have lost its damn mind. So this one is kind of about both those transitions and questioning my place in all of it.
I used to have all these fucked up relationships and I walked around and rode the bus a lot, I was all up in it. but now I'm in this healthy relationship, we got married and it's great, and I have a car so I don't get to see stuff out in the wild like I did. I was worried that I wouldn't have anything to write about, that I'd lose my voice. I feel like half of it is just me watching TV with my wife and our cats. But I sent out the manuscript to some people and got back "Brutal!" "Visceral" "Tom Waits! "Street!" So what do I know?
You know how to write, motherfucker, more than many people (even writers) can boast. Peace.