Lucien Zell: From a Dark to a Bright Unknown
This interview was primarily conducted by my friend Katka, who discovered the beauty of Lucien Zell's poems through the book she borrowed from me. After reading just a few lines, Katka knew we needed to interview this intriguing character... a one-handed American who's traveled the world and currently resides in Prague.
Katka: Did you formally study art?
Lucien: Yes and no. I obtained a scholarship to study acting at the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle but, one week before I was going to start, my brother died... so I was very shaken up. I attended classes but quickly realized that I couldn't focus on studying. Couldn't focus on theater, couldn't focus on anything. So I took what I thought was going to be a year break from college to travel... but my 'year' has lasted twenty.
Katka: And that was the time when you started writing poetry?
Lucien: Actually, I started writing before. And it was like being hit by psychic lighting. When I was eleven years old, I wrote my first poem.
Katka: Eleven, that's precocious. What was it about?
Lucien: Hmm, a kind of catharsis that came from a strange experience. Mrs Starr, our teacher in elementary school, was abruptly summoned from the class and when she reentered the room she was crying and for about five or ten minutes... she just sat weeping in front of us. And all of these stunned-into-silence eleven-year olds, we just sat glancing from her to the floor to each other and back to the floor, and fidgeting. Finally she stopped crying and told us what had happened to Christa McAuliffe—who was the first school teacher ever sent into space. The space shuttle Christa was on was called Challenger, and less than two minutes after take off it exploded. Everyone on board died instantly. When Mrs Starr again left the room I pulled out a sheet of paper and scribbled down my first poem. It was a kind of response, I suppose, to the emotional chaos of the situation. Then, when I was thirteen, I wrote my second poem... which again felt like this bolt of psychic lighting. And when I was sixteen it struck again so at that point I realized: wow, I keep getting battered by this lightning for some kind of reason and I better trust the pulse of this electricity that's coming to me and through me because otherwise I'm going to be denying my fate.
Katka: What's most important for you when you read or write a poem?
Lucien: Just as a frisbee’s sole special effect is to fly, a poem’s sole special effect is to—for an unsplit second—so erase the world that you find your head’s a comet whooshing past the stars. Leonard Cohen articulated it slightly differently: 'Poetry is just the evidence of life. If your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.' To go deeper, for me—hm, this is going to be difficult for you to translate—poetry's a brainbow. It's not a rainbow, it's not a brain, it's a brainbow: when you have the rain of feelings that's pierced by the sunlight of intellect. That's just one way to describe it. It's very hard to describe. But I can also say that many poets try to describe the indescribable, to say the unsayable and that's precisely what I love about poetry. When I read a poem and feel 'ah, someone described that! that's something I know, that's something I felt but I was never able to say.' Basically they've seized a maybe and transformed it to a yes. When a maybe is pushed off the edge of the cliff of knowing and falls into yes, it's so exhilarating. And when it happens to me, when I'm able to say something I didn't think I could say, then it's a really great feeling. Many writers ask 'How do you know how to create? Where does your inspiration come from?' I guess one of the most simple answers I can proffer up is: be surprised. Because if you're not surprised by what you're writing—then no one is going to be surprised by what they're reading. One last attempt, for now, at a ‘definition’: Poetry is like cocaine… you do it in lines, it gets you high, and if you do the good stuff—you’ll be addicted for life!
Katka: I suppose this happens in everything... acting, painting, music. But do you think people understand poetry in the twenty-first century? In the past there were poems in newspapers, but nowadays…
Lucien: In any given society, poets are always a minority. But it's a tenacious minority. As was shown during the time of Communism here in Czechoslovakia. That means that even if there's the threat of jail for possessing samizdat... [Editor's note: 'samizdat' were censored, underground publications covertly passed, often hand to hand, from reader to reader] people will still create samizdat, they will still pass around samizdat. People are willing to both live and die for these strange spells, these strange combinations of words that we call poems. The fact that poets are such a tenacious minority gives me faith because while it's true that right now is not really the most encouraging time for poets... they're still around. They're not very wealthy or very acknowledged, no, they have another kind of gold. But to some people, who value that gold, they are rich and people still come to them for loans.
Katka: What is your goal? Would you like to be a famous poet?
Lucien: I would like to be a bridge. Yes, I want my life to become a bridge that crosses to something and that people start to utilize in some fashion. That's a great feeling, when I see people being enchanted by my art... transported by it to some other side. Maybe to another side of themselves, maybe to another side of what they believe is possible. Sometimes, if someone encounters my work and is moved emotionally by it, then I feel that they've crossed a river that they didn't even know they needed to cross, in fact, a river that they didn't even know existed. So it's very important for me to be a bridge in that sense... but I would also say that I've learned to settle for a kind of spectrum of wishes and while at the top of that spectrum there's the Pulitzer prize, the Nobel—at the lower there's simply one person reading one line of my poetry and being moved, being inspired, even a little. That's the top and the bottom of the spectrum, obviously there are lots of spaces in between.
Katka: Tell us about your 'real' life. Because when somebody claims to be a poet, it sounds nice but the reality must be difficult. We're writing this interview for students at our university and some of them might be interested in becoming artists so please tell them a little about the reality of that.
Lucien: The simplest way I can put it is: it's hard to climb mountains, but if you're a mountain climber, it's harder not to climb them. You have to find things that you truly care about and you have to live as close to those truths as possible. People are always talking about authenticity, but I think they're tricked into thinking that lies are always lies that we tell. No, I don't think that those lies are necessarily so bad. What's worse are the lies that we live. Those are the lies that really damn us, that really destroy us. I think we all have to find our own way of living as close to our truth as possible.
Jana: So you think that people are afraid of achieving their goals?
Lucien: I think they're quite afraid of certain ideals they might hold. For instance, many people talk about wanting freedom. But very few people truly want freedom because freedom means loneliness, freedom means rejection, freedom means isolation from your social group (an insulated network which is basically unfree), freedom often entails a lot of criticism from others—both direct and indirect—freedom means, at least to some degree, the threat of poverty. That's something I think you were hinting at with your previous question. It's a very hard thing to encourage someone to enter onto a path of art, it's almost like telling someone hey, why not become Joan of Arc—c'mon, just leap into the flames. But if you're really crazy enough to be an artist... then you'd be even more crazy not to be an artist. Like I said, I think you've got to find out where your real passion is and then live as close to it as possible.
Katka: Freedom means different things to different people. For some, freedom means being with his/her family and for others that's evidently not the case.
Lucien: Yes. One of the most interesting exercises I've done recently is simply asking people: tell me about your perfect day. And what's incredible—at least when people are being honest about it—is just how many absolutely different 'perfect' days there are.
Jana: Was any of your ancestors an artist or did you inherit this gift?
Lucien: Artists? Not exactly. But my roots are Jewish. And I believe Jews are outstanding writers and poets and linguists because they have been 'People of the Book' for thousands of years. I was quite surprised when I realized that Noam Chomsky, the most famous linguist in the world, is Jewish, another famous linguist from Harvard University, Steven Pinker, he's also Jewish, not to mention some of my favorite contemporary 'rabbis' are Jewish: Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel!
But the fact is that my grandfather was the child of immigrants: in New York he spent his childhood with people's feet. Literally, on his knees, because he was working in the shoe store of his family and he was constantly trying on shoes for potential customers... and he hated feet, he hated shoes. He decided to hate his past as well because he decided to jettison religion and become a doctor. He was very disciplined, extremely hard working, and you might say science became his religion. My grandfather went to college at fifteen, earned his Ph.D. at twenty-one and then he was the head of a hospital in California: Kaiser. In fact they were going to name the hospital after him. But this was during a rather awkward time in America, very similar to what was happening here in Czechoslovakia with anti-Communist dissidents, only in reverse—in America, people who were for Communism could be persecuted. It was completely the opposite... but the same. It was a time that came to be called the 'Red Scare' which meant that anyone suspected of being a Communist could go to jail, or at least get what they called 'blacklisted' which meant that they became unemployable. And this went down during the term of office of Joseph McCarthy, who was a truly despicable senator—similar to a witch trial, he was pointing fingers at everyone. So my grandfather was given a list and on this list were names of doctors and nurses who were suspected 'Communists' that he would have to fire. He thought about it. Finally, I guess he was a very proud man, he said “Fuck you, I'm not gonna do it.” And so he resigned from the hospital, which completely changed his personal fortune and completely changed the fortune of my family as well because he was already well-off, but he would have been even richer and set for life. And instead he became this mendicant doctor... the family went across America. At one point they lived in a house where Edgar Allan Poe had lived. Then my family settled on the East Coast, in Rhode Island, but I think the call to go West, the call of California was strong, so my mom ended up going back. And that's where I was born, in Los Angeles. So I don't actually have anyone in my family who's a bonafide artist but I do feel in my family a certain kind of will towards shattering tradition. To break free from the codes of normality. So in that sense, yes, I come from a family of artists, at least artists of social concern, if not actual artists.
Jana: You mentioned religion. Is it important for you?
Lucien: Spirituality, yes, but religion, no, because I don't want to be a part of any religion. I feel that, unfortunately, most religions have lost their true essence, they've lost their direction. Every religion is like a super highway, it can take you a certain distance but the path to truth is a footpath and you have to get off the highway if you want to reach it. But it is an interesting question, Jana, because the fact is, I did discover that I have a belief in God and avidly wish to maintain a connection to God. Just not through religion. So my family wasn't religious but I found that it is, nevertheless, very important for me. I forged my own connection.
Jana: That's the best I guess.
Lucien: I hope so.
Katka: You started traveling a lot then?
Katka: And why?
Lucien: In the beginning I was running away. I was just sick of America, and all its materialistic stuff stuff stuff. All those bleak, movie-peppered lives.
Katka: Sick of California?
Lucien: My family had already moved from California to Washington. So I grew up in Seattle, in the time of grunge, it was the season of Nirvana, but I still felt very oppressed in America. For instance: one day I was strolling down the sidewalk and saw some policeman who was placing a guy under arrest and I just stopped to watch. I was aware that this policeman was edging past his duty, being aggressive, and I just decided to watch and find out what was going on. He told me to move on. I was 18 years old and I said 'No, I'm on the fucking sidewalk and I can stay here if I want to.” He rushed at me and handcuffed me [Editor's note: Lucien was born with the birth defect of a missing right hand]—now the great thing is, having one hand he couldn't actually handcuff me, so I was free but he did chuck me in the back of his police car. Then he and his partner took me to the station, threw me in a cell, and then tried to charge me with resisting arrest. The fact is, in America, if a policeman says one truth (which is a lie) and you say another truth but can't prove it—who are they going to believe? I suppose I got quite lucky in a sense because they simply weren't able to build a case and I was released that night. But when my family came to pick me up they didn't believe me. Didn't buy my version of events. They thought I had done something wrong. And I genuinely hadn't. That kind of misunderstanding and misjudgment, along with the death of my brother, and a few other things... I just decided I had to get out of the country. So I came to Europe.
Katka: Ok, you traveled a lot, why did you choose Prague?
Lucien: I met a publisher here who offered to publish my first book. I also had, through my travels, developed many connections in Eastern Europe and I realized that I resonate with this whole part of the world. I finally decided to come back and publish my first book in Prague in 1999... and remained ever since.
Katka: Couldn't we say it's a success, because I think it must be difficult to publish a book of poems these days?
Lucien: Yes and no. Poetry definitely doesn't sell like fiction or other kinds of writing... but all my books have sold out. Every single poetry book I published—we sold every copy. Of course it helps that my publisher only prints ten copies at a time! Just kidding. Kinda...
Katka: You also make music and act and you're even a photographer. Which of these fields do you prefer?
Lucien: Well, I can't say I have an absolute preference. Perhaps because I'm so easily bored it's better for me that I have a few different possible forms of expression. I also find that they're complementary to each other, so, for example, the intensity of vision that's required as a photographer also serves me as a poet. You have to look deeply into things, be constantly aware of what's going on, try to frame the composition of events. And just as in photography, when you write a poem you have to possess, or be possessed by, some kind of visionary, descriptive quality... to know all the components of your own mind enough to crystallize them, and articulate them in words. And acting, well, you must know this as an actress, Katka, acting is so much about concentration, focus, stepping outside of yourself and becoming another entity. Like what a teacher at Cornish once asked me: 'You know the difference between a good actor and a great one?' I shook my head. 'A good actor tells the truth. A great actor tells a secret.' That fits right into writing a book where, to paraphrase Milan Kundera: you have to enter that space where you can be on everyone's side. You can't just be on your side, you gotta be on everyone's side.
Katka: I suppose you could remain on your side... but that's boring.
Lucien: Exactly. So all of those things come together and there's a concept which, again, is going to be really difficult to translate: I'm not just an artist, I'm a heartist. I don't just want to be a successful artist and have my name splashed on walls everywhere—I really want to spread heart in the world. If I can spread it through music—fine, if I can spread it through acting—fine. There are lots of different ways of spreading heart, spreading imagination. In fact, that's the only nation I'm patriotic to (uh-oh, another untranslatable): the IMAGInation.
Jana: So you basically want to inspire people?
Lucien: Yes. I want to inspire people but I have also realized a few things along the way…the first book I published in Prague was called The Sad Cliffs of Light. Somebody came up and asked: 'Why the sad cliffs of light? Why the sad cliffs? Why are you in this melancholic mood?” and I said: 'Well, eh-hem, it's the sad cliffs of light, not the sad cliffs of darkness.' Similar to the director Peter Brook, I believe that psychoanalysis and psychiatry in general has some kind of redundant limitations of thought. For instance, they talk about the 'dark depths of the soul'. The dark recesses of the mind. Why 'dark'? Why do they always associate the unknown with darkness? For me the unknown is also charged with light. Part of what I think that they are doing by calling the recesses of the soul 'dark' is promoting the idea that you should be afraid of those parts of yourself. You should not be afraid of those parts of yourself! You should be totally, totally joyful about those parts! You should be jumping at the opportunity to explore those places... and just by calling them dark and by not acknowledging, hey, these are the (at least, potentially) light recesses of the soul, who knows what we're missing? I mean, what if these are the edges of the mind that we will cast ourselves into absolute brightness by leaping off of? That rather subtle shift in emphasis—from a 'dark' to a 'bright' unknown—could be a way of reaffirming people's courage to venture to those places in the first place.
Katka: What about your audience—are they different in different countries?
Lucien: Yeah, I think so. In Italy and Portugal, people seem to appreciate my emotionalism a bit more. I find that in Portugal—especially with their traditional Fado music—they're accustomed to baring their souls... so when I do the same, they cheer. Whereas here, because Czechs are far more reserved, I find they're not so open to that type of expression. In fact, because I'm a bit of a blind chameleon, I often adapt to that, and proffer up a more subdued performance.
Jana: Have you had the chance to perform in the US?
Lucien: A little. I've only been four times in America in the last twenty years. I performed in San Francisco—at the little San Francisco library in North Beach. Initially, I was invited to the San Francisco Book Fair as a 'Czech' poet, which is completely absurd. I suppose I was called to combine my poetry skills with my acting skills—I kinda had to pretend to be a Czech poet. Once or twice I performed in Seattle. In truth, I haven't performed much in America.
Jana: If you compare an American audience with a Czech one, are they different?
Lucien: One thing that I definitely have to be aware of here is that at times there's a language gap. When I was in America, or even when I was performing in England, or Ireland, I was conscious that, wow, everybody actually understands every word I'm saying, which is amazing!
Katka: So you sense a language barrier here?
Lucien: I'm just conscious that sometimes I have to say things in a more simple manner than I might normally, I mean, if addressing native English speakers. But that's also a good challenge because it means I have to crystallize my ideas. I can't just whip up some verbal storm—I have to say things that mean something to everyone. So, in a way it's a challenge that's helpful... because there's a whole part of language that people forget. A friend of mine was beginning a relationship with a Czech woman, but she didn't speak any English, and he didn't speak any Czech. And he asked: 'Hey, Lu, is this possible?' And I said 'Well, if you don't share a language with someone, it's like a mask that each of you is wearing that you can never take off. But it's also like a mask that you can never put on.' So, in such circumstances, you're forced to really communicate—to commune—to feel and be with someone at a level that you typically can just ignore. Simply put, people lost in talking with others forget how much can be found in simply being with them.
Jana: If you were to describe yourself, what would you say?
Lucien: A friend of mine recently asked me how much of myself is in my writing, so I said this, and I'll recycle it. To quote Kris Kristofferson, a great songwriter, 'I'm a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.' And so my friend persisted: 'Really, what percentage of what you write is true?' And I said: '100% true, says the liar, 100% bullshit, says the other liar, while a third liar sits in silence, eyes wide, gazing at a flock of birds that circle, cry out and disappear.'
Katka: That's how you describe yourself?