An Interview with Adrian C. Louis

by Tera Swearngin

Adrian C. Louis is a Native American writer born in Nevada and a member of the Lovelock Paiute Tribe. He has written several books of poetry – his 2006 poetry collection, Logorrhea, was released by Northwestern University Press and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. His 2012 collection Savage Sunsets is available from West End Press, and his most recent collection is Random Exorcisms, recently released by Pleiades Press.  He has also produced two works of fiction, one of which, Skins, was adapted into a feature film in 2002. He’s taught at the university level since 1984 and has recently retired.

What or who are your literary inspirations?

I don’t know that I have any at this stage of the game.  When I was younger I had my heroes: Stephen Crane, TS Eliot, Jack Kerouac, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop–Yeats, Neruda, the standard dead-white-writers that literature majors love and even (God forbid!) Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists!  Later on, my tastes changed and I preferred a darker pigmentation and I migrated to  Scott Momaday, Leslie Silko, Michael Harper, Jim Tate, Amiri Baraka, Wanda Coleman, Charles Bukowski, Joy Harjo, Jim Northrup, Welch, Alexie and on and on.  Today, only a handful of writers provide a hint of inspiration. If anything inspires me to write these days, it is memory, the distortion and manipulation of memory, and talking to the ghosts of those people I loved, most specifically my deceased wife.

You have a recurring theme of exorcisms in your book. Does each “exorcism” have a different meaning? Does it hold a special definition for you?

My use of “Exorcism” is generic.  It has no special meaning.  I guess I use “exorcism” in the broad and metaphorical sense–the expelling of personal demons, the release of memory, the extraction of things within me that I have a hard time dealing with, and the calm that comes with such release.  So, it is not so much the split-pea soup vomit of the movie The Exorcist, but I hope some readers will have their heads spin 360 degrees after reading some of these poems.  There is a really scary harshness to many of the poems people have said.  So, who knows?  Maybe I really was, at least subconsciously, harkening back to the movie when I came up with that title.

You reference social media in your poems. I’m thinking specifically of “In the Republic of Facebookistan,” in which you ponder the purpose of Facebook.What is the draw there for you creatively?

I guess I am somewhat addicted to Facebook even though I have a love/hate relationship with it.  It forces me to accept the fact that a good portion of me still resides in the 20th century.  There is no real creative draw.  I think it’s a good way for me to see beyond the cornfields that surround me and network a little with other poets and writers.  A lot of people post poems and I enjoy reading them. On the other hand, sometimes there is so much yapping about poetry I feel like I’m in an effing English department meeting.  And then you have the careerists, the morons, and the sad folks who have the need to make note of every minute of their boring days.  So, Facebook is like cod liver oil.  I take it every morning.  I don’t know if it does me any good or not.  It’s the only social media I do.  No Twitter, etc.

What was your favorite poem in the collection and why?

I don’t know that I have any favorites–that’s a question like who is your favorite child?  Some I like better than others, but most I like for different reasons.  That’s a vague answer.  I sound like a politician.  Some I like better than others and those have secret little doors within doors merely for my own amusement.  Writing poetry amuses me.  If it didn’t, it would be a dreary practice. When I have a poem published, I lose interest in it.  When I have a book published, I tend to expel it from my consciousness and move onto my next project.

You utilize a range of formats for your poems – prose poems, short blocky ones, traditional layouts, and some with irregular stanza breaks or none at all. How do you decide how to treat each poem, format-wise?

I tend to use two basic formats.  One somewhat standard with a left hand margin, and the other with both margins justified and resembling a prose poem.  I just call them blocks.  I have little patience for forms and/or formalists.  I favor the conversational narrative that I hope speaks to the fact that I am a common man. Or maybe an uncommon common man.  I think I have successfully evaded your format question!

How do you balance traditional poetic themes and language with your irreverent style?

I don’t know what an irreverent style is.  Am I irreverent?  Yes, no doubt, but I don’t know if that is my style.  Then again, maybe it is.  Traditional poetic themes and language?  I love playing with words.  I always have.  Traditional poetic themes?  What are they?  Life, love, pain, joy, death?  Let me answer with this Yeats poem:


Speech after long silence; it is right,
All other lovers being estranged or dead,
Unfriendly lamplight hid under its shade,
The curtains drawn upon unfriendly night,
That we descant and yet again descant
Upon the supreme theme of Art and Song:
Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

— William Butler Yeats

What new projects are you working on?

When I asked Sherman Alexie for a blurb, I said, “Blurb me bro, this is my final damn book.”  Three or four months ago I could not write a line of poetry to save my ass.  But in the last two months I have completely written another collection of poems called Electric Snakes–I like this manuscript better than any book I’ve ever written. And the poems keep coming, I know there are many more inside of me, or inside the well of my tiny brain. I can see them dancing like deranged minnows in a stream. Poetry is my curse, a good one, but a curse nevertheless.  So, now I have to find yet another publisher and go through all those writerly chores again…yikes!

Anyway, I am now blabbing far too much.  Let me conclude with a shout-out to Pleiades Press.  The process was relatively smooth with very little stress.  Kathryn Nuernberger is the best  editor I’ve ever worked with–perhaps because she is a poet or maybe because she is a kind soul.  I can be a pain in the butt to work with.