Author Q&A: Kirby Wright

Kirby Wright’s second play, Asylum Uncle, opened at the Secret Theatre’s LIC Festival in New York on November 4th, 2016. His third play, Rag of Man, was performed at Manhattan Repertory Theatre’s 2017 Non-Fest. Wright was the 2016 Artist in Residence at the Eckerö Mail and Customs House in the Åland Islands, Finland. His new book is AT THE CUSTOMS HOUSE, a poetry and flash collection set in Helsinki and Stockholm.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Kirby Wright

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How would you say your writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, or intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

Believe it or not, it started when I began writing letters to relatives at age nine. I had a bunch of aunts and uncles in Boston and wanted them to know what it was like spending summers on my grandmother’s horse ranch on the remote island of Moloka’i. In college, I think the tipping point for me as far as wanting to be a writer came when my grandmother died and I knew all her stories would be lost if I didn’t write them down. Those stories can be found in my book Moloka’i Nui Ahina, a hybrid form between the novel and the creative nonfiction personal essay.

You’ve published several books, poems, and anthologies—what can you tell us about the publication process? How would you evaluate your own experience with getting your work printed? How has that shifted over time?

I prefer getting published online because, although hard copy is great, being in respected magazines on the web allows your work to be read by a far greater audience. It’s almost as if the literary journals and magazines that are published in print form cause your verse and stories to get locked away and hardly read. I used to line my bookshelf with those publications but now I am more interested in appearing online. What’s also great about being on the Internet is that you list their URLs on your resume and this helps greatly when submitting to overseas residencies. I’m certain that my online presence allowed for offers to lecture from universities in China, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

Finding love and losing love intrigue me. I’m also interested in family dynamics, particularly the power struggles for love and respect that go on behind closed doors. For example, there a time when my big brother and I agreed to fight as a team the next time our old man pulled off his belt. As far as evolution, I was accepted into the Creative Writing Department at SFSU as a poet. My refusal to get pigeonholed as a poet forced me out of my comfort zone and helped me sign up for classes in the short story, the novel, and the play. If you’re in college now, I urge you to take classes in multiple genres. You’ll discover they’re all connected and that you may take a liking to one you never previously considered. That happened to me when I took my first playwriting class, and later won an award for an original play at SFSU.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

First and foremost, James Joyce, especially his coming of age stories in Dubliners, as well as epiphanic moments in A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man, such as when the boy sees the girl on shore and equates her to a “wild angel.” When F. Scott Fitzgerald met Joyce in Paris, he attempted to hurl himself from his third-floor hotel room in Joyce’s honor but was restrained by Hemingway.

You’ll find a copy of Hemingway’s short stories on my nightstand. That’s my Bible. I admire his coming of age stories, particularly “The End of Something,” featuring Marjorie and Nick’s breakup. I also like “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife.” I frequently criticize Hemingway out loud for his doctor story, particularly for not placing Nick beside his father when he has a disagreement with another man. I remember my father almost fighting this big Samoan dude, and that conflict was burned into my soul.

As far as poets, I admire the verse of TS Eliot, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Ginsberg. For me, Plath is sort of a female Eliot, although the terrain she walks is more concerned with family conflicts than the alienation of mankind in the cities. I like that both Plath and Eliot employ dialogue in their narrative structures, along with legions of compelling characters. I must include Ginsberg in my lineup because of “Howl.” I first met Ginsberg while he was smoking pakalolo outside the East West Center at UH in Honolulu.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a poem, or for discovering a new mode of creativity?

First off, find your voice. Reading the greats helps. Sometimes you’ll write and sound like your favorite great but don’t worry. Voice will come. Discovering your true voice may take years of experimentation but it’s worth it. F. Scott Fitzgerald advised all new and fledgling writers to begin with the poem, even if you define yourself as a short story writer, novelist, playwright, or screenplay writer. As far as writing screenplays, nothing will teach you how to be clear and concise more than crafting verse. If you hate writing in poetic lines, try writing prose poetry or flash fictions. The main thing is that you bring your unique vision to the table and it doesn’t matter whether or not you follow some preconceived rules of structure designed by a boring teacher or over-the-hill professor. Above all, you must experiment constantly. Sometime I doodle just to keep my pen active on a page without lines. Dare to say what’s truly on your mind, not what you think others or your instructor wants to hear. Never judge your creative potential by a grade you receive or some offhand judgment grounded neither in reason nor feeling.

Dare to break new ground, particularly in that gray zone between genres. The prose poem or flash would be an exquisite place to begin, especially if you incorporate elements of music in your text, such as having a chorus or incorporating another voice. Here’s a secret: whenever I had an in-class presentation, I had friends in the audience sing or recite a line or two to shake up the instructor. Boy, did that work. It also helped during one of my lectures in Hong Kong. And having someone else contribute unexpectedly ads dimension to your piece while making you feel you’re part of a team. That’s my secret weapon.

In terms of publication, is there something in particular that you look for when approaching different presses? September City, Keeping the Darkness Out, and many more have all been published by different publishing houses. I wonder what factors play into choosing and developing relationships with presses.

It’s kind of a crapshoot, if you want to know the truth. There’s this constant changing of the guard at presses and literary reviews, so what may have appealed to one editor at an online or university publication may be rejected by a higher-up or a replacement. The literary editor as Esquire Magazine wanted my story and was preparing my contract when the Editor-in-Chief reviewed the piece and rejected it. What a horror! My advice to your readers is to submit a poem, story, or chapter to multiple publications if allowed. That will increase your chances. That’s what helped me get every poem and flash written in Helsinki and Stockholm get published. Once you have selections of your work published online, you stand a better chance of finding either a publisher or agent. The agency thing is another long battle, and perhaps I’ll cover that if presented with a follow-up interview. If you write screenplays, use the time you’d spend spinning wheels trying to find an agent and direct it instead to making a trailer that’s no longer than two minutes. A film agent is typically not a good reader but a good trailer might capture his or her attention.

What can you tell us about your experiences as a Visiting Fellow at the 2009 International Writers Conference in Hong Kong?

When I first landed at Hong Kong airport, I looked up at the pastel green control tower and was gripped by the fear I’d be imprisoned in China for something politically offensive I’d already written or might blurt out during a lecture. This was my first time overseas. But before my first lecture at Hong Kong Baptist University, the professor told his class that they should pay close attention to me because I was “a lion of literature.” That made me feel great. I went on to deliver a spiel about my experience with motivation and writing. A few students teared up, especially after I talked about hearing a Hawaiian wail coming from inside Father Damien’s Church before my grandmother’s funeral, a lament that gave me chicken skin.

After that initial lecture, things got better and better. I met the poet Gary Snyder, whom I’d read in high school. I served on writing panels composed of Pacific Rim writers, was selected to open up the International Writers Conference and recited an island poem while being accompanied by a pianist on a white baby grand, and was sent by ferries to lecture at schools along the Chinese Riviera. A university president gifted me a dozen Chinese art bars—silver bars covered with fancy scrolls, oxen, and flowery artwork. All the students in my audience paid great attention, asked fascinating questions, and were eager to show me their campuses. I still remember the Chinese flag fluttering on their dorm balconies. My only mistake was trying to pay for bottled water on-campus with Hong Kong dollars. I needed yen, but a coed picked up the tab. I had a personal driver who zipped me up and down the Riviera freeways as if challenging Speed Racer. What made the Asian experience even better was having a suite overlooking the PLA barracks, free meals, and great compensation. I explored strange and dangerous landmarks in Hong Kong such as Chungking Mansions and ventured out of the city proper searching for the elusive white dolphin in Tao Village. It had been said that, if you spotted the dolphin, you’d be rewarded with a year of good luck.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunity for your writing?

I must admit that my experience in China helped shape my direction, at least as a poet. Why? It helped me get out of Dodge and allowed me to gain a new perspective on the world and my place in it. I found it easy to write poems and prose poems because I was somewhere I’d never been before and wanted to capture both my experiences and the visuals in verse. I still remember staring down at the PLA headquarters in Kowloon Tong, the former barracks for the British military, and writing about this bright red placard with gold lettering attached to the wall behind the sentry box. I took a photo of it at night, the flash went off, and the sentry ordered me to halt. Now that’s another story, but I did escape. Knowing that I could go anywhere in the world and be productive as a travel poet and writer inspired me to apply to overseas residencies. Surprisingly, I was accepted by some. I’ve lectured in Prague, Vienna, Cesky Krumlov, Auckland, Helsinki, and Stockholm. My latest book, At the Customs House, is a collection of poetry and flash based on my experiences in Helsinki, Stockholm, and the Åland Islands. There’s this incredible straight from Mariehamn to Stockholm with Swedish villages lining both shores.

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Stick with it. Even if you abandon writing for a few months or even a year or two, try and come back to it. Why? You are documenting your life, leaving something behind. My decision to pursue an MFA came after the heir to the Walmart fortune passed and I realized that he had never written a single story or a poem or even an anecdote that revealed something about his interior world. He passed on lots of bucks to his loved ones but where are the passionate stories that tell us something about how he really felt and provide a glimpse of his take on the world beyond the corporation? What you have to share about yourself is truly unique and you do have a duty to share that with the world.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I have two goals remaining. The first is to publish my coming of age memoir set on the islands of Oahu and Moloka’i. I hate to admit this, but I’ve been working on it for nearly a decade. Almost all of the chapters have been published, with one forthcoming in Missouri State University’s Moon City Review.

My second goal is to focus on pivotal characters in Hawaiian history and bring their stories to life. I have already crafted a short play set in the days of Captain Cook and hope to expand this into a screenplay in the next few years. Why? I want to bring that history to life for the Hawaiian people, especially for the children. They need to know where they came from and need to understand that greatness is in their blood.

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