Junk Talk Interview with Alan Kaufman


Alan Kaufman is the author of Drunken Angel from Viva Editions. The author of the novel Matches and a critically acclaimed memoir, Jew Boy, he is also the award-winning editor of several anthologies, most notably The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. He lives in San Francisco.

Tim Elhajj for Junk Talk: I’m a recovering addict myself and thought you really captured what it feels like to navigate the rooms of a 12-step fellowship as a new person. Twelve-step programs, and even the culture of self-help and pop psychology, are parodied in the media, but you write with such reverence of the 12 steps, sponsorship and even your higher power. Did you feel any reluctance as a writer to cast yourself as such an unabashed 12-Step believer?

Alan Kaufman: Not really. The twelve steps saved my life. Also, significantly, they lead me through existential doors that I had sought for all my life but could not somehow access.  Before coming into Recovery, I could READ Camus and even remotely sense my kinship with his perspective and yet have absolutely no idea just how to extract personal meaning from his work for my own life. I could, intellectually-speaking, identify with, say, Melville and yet not be able to grasp the essential spiritual struggle implicit in every line he wrote. But when you have death perched on your shoulders–an awareness of which is absolutely essential to successful engagement with the Steps, Recovery, et al.–then, suddenly, the moment of clarity is at hand. Suddenly you feel identification with others. You can grasp the spiritual struggles at  the heart of so much of what others have faced and wrestled with, the questions about our essential meaning, our actions, our core beliefs–all of which we must confront when getting sober.

Junk Talk: You’re not afraid to weigh in on political or social issues in your work. In one particularly memorable and poignant passage, you meet up with a mentally ill, homeless woman. You’re essentially homeless yourself or very close to it. You allow the passage to become a meditation on homelessness, a stinging indictment of American values. Do you feel called upon to use your gifts to speak to issues that you feel passionate about?

Alan Kaufman: Absolutely! My spiritual life and sobriety and my writing are inseparable from my sense of existential responsibility to whatever lies at hand. And if what lies at hand is glaringly unjust, how can I soberly look away?In fact I would say even further that I dare not look away if I  hope to remain sober. I cannot falsely refuse to bear witness or fail to respond to an urgent human crisis lying near death at my very doorstep or at the very least to express it through my writing.  Because think of the constant lies I will need to tell myself in order to deny what I have seen. I will need to numb myself to a considerable degree in order to avoid the pain of such refused witness. And that is precisely the sort of somatization which modern society–the State and Corporation and most political isms– has fostered among contemporary populations; a kind of feel-good trance state self-absorption that requires, on the part of the individual, constant numbing consumption and denial to sustain. I cannot afford that. Nor do I choose it. Also, my sobriety is contingent upon an ability to empathize with and respond actively to life, meaning other human beings. How can I experience your suffering and turn away indifferently? But if I embrace it at some level, even only as a writer, and convey it, then somehow I have served a purpose. It has not been lost. It will somehow matter. It will not be completely swallowed up. I may not be able to directly counter all such suffering. But I can at least use my gifts as writer and witness to be sure that some of what I have seen is not forgotten.

Junk Talk: Why is it that so many great writers and artists have destroyed themselves with drugs and alcohol? Is there some link between art and addiction? If so, how do you keep your art fresh with no addiction? If not, what do you make of so many good writers being alcoholics?

Alan Kaufman: Those authors whom I admire fall into different camps around this matter of self-destruction. Hemmingway, Faulkner, Kerouac , Hunter Thompson, Ken Kesey, did some of their best work when not yet in the throes of their worst drinking and drugging. Then, as the alcoholism and drugs kicked in heavily, the quality of their work declined sharply.  In other words, one can see a marked descent into tragedy and disintegration in the careers of such writers. Fitzgerald is of course the great example of this. But then, think of those who did not destroy themselves with drugs and booze, like Dosdoyevsky, Tolstoy, Saul Bellows, Rousseau, Joseph Conrad, Flaubert, Tadeus Borowski, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Philip Roth, Knut  Hamsun, Mark Twain, I.B. Singer, and Dickens–all writers from whom I have drawn inspiration and example.  They would not have attained the great heights that they did if they had wasted decades drinking themselves into oblivion. Two of personal favorites are Hubert Selby Jr., author of Last Exit To Brooklyn, who had about 25 years of recovery from serious heroin addiction when he died.  Selby put quotes on back of two of my books and we had contact back in the nineties.  Cormac McCarthy is another  personal  favorite who I believe  gave up the booze and in doing so saved himself as a writer.

For myself, I have replaced booze and drugs with spirituality and that includes the necessity to engage with life, with people, and to be true to my experience and to possess the self-discipline and determination, one day at a time, to sit down and write as truly and best as I can.

Junk Talk: I remember going to a meeting a few years ago where at the end we all held hands and recited the Lord’s Prayer, as we have done many time before. I noticed two Jewish men, both newcomers, standing in the circle. After the meeting I asked those men if they felt uncomfortable reciting a Christian prayer. They both said they did, but offered a shrug—“Whatdya gonna do” looks on their faces. Your Jewish identity comes across strong in this work—you’re an Israeli citizen and have fought for the IDF. Have you ever struggled with the Christian charter of 12-Step programs?

Alan Kaufman: Speaking only for myself, I don’t find any particular charter evident anywhere in the 12 step programs that I attend, though there’s attempts now and then by a few misguided folks to impose one.  Recovery is not about religion but spirituality. Few of those who seek to impose religion on programs ever stay sober for long. Live and Let Live is the motto I live by. Efforts to steer programs in some other direction offer result in the one making such efforts getting drunk again. In a typical meeting in SF,  I, a Jew, am sitting among Pagans, Hindus, Muslims, Protestants, Atheists. Episcopalians, Chasids,  Epicureans, Stoics, Sufis, Buddhists, and so on.  At the end of the meeting we all hold hands and pray together. The absence of any specific charter as regards religion is precisely what makes the 12 step programs so distinctive and attractive. You know what is said in the programs about Religion, right? “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to Hell; spirituality is for those who have already been there.”

Junk Talk: I had the pleasure of watching you read from Drunken Angel recently. Wikipedia says you were “instrumental in the development of the Spoken Word movement in literature.” I’m not completely sure I know what that means, but I really enjoyed listening to you read from your memoir. You were very engaging and I felt moved at the end. What can you tell aspiring memoirists about the Spoken Word movement?

Alan Kaufman: Back in the late eighties and early nineties, a movement sprang up in NY, Chicago, San Francisco, of poets who declined to term ourselves poets–a kind of  avant garde protest against the stultifying state and exclusivity of American Poetry at the time. This gave rise to the Poetry Slam and other forms of poetry performance. We sought to write poems that you could see with your ears and hear with your eyes and we wrote for audience. And the benefit  was that I got an opportunity, time and again, to hear my voice and to see the impact of my use of language on real-time audiences. Also, I developed a sense of economy of statement and alternately of poetic possibilities through my involvement with the Spoken Word scene. I edited one of the principle anthologies of the Spoken Word Movement: The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, which is a bestseller, now in its 14th printing.  And I’ve since had published an earlier memoir, entitled ‘Jew Boy’ and a novel, entitled ‘Matches’ and in each of those, as with ‘Drunken Angel’  my sense of voice and language were the direct result of my long involvement with Spoken Word poetry.

But the bottom line in writing, I believe,  is to write, consistently and with discipline. And in choosing what to express,  to thine own self be true. My life is the story I have to tell. It is inexhaustible.


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