Writing for the Working Class
A Conversation with Raquel Pasquela Ramirez
by Pete Brooks
Chicago native Raquel Ramirez is a poet, visual artist and webmistress of Strongbox, a Long Beach-based internet forum for poetry, short stories & selected local music links.
According to her official bio, which I reprint here in its entirety:
"Raquel Ramirez has just completed a Master's of Fine Arts degree in poetry at California State University at Long Beach. She has read throughout Southern California and participated in Several Poetry Slams. She has self-published four chap books entitled From the Arms of a Young Woman, Scottish Plaid Bondage Pants, Mean Streets, and Pastel Houses, and most recently Chain-Mail Ballerina and Running Over Burning Bridges, the latter in tandem with poet W. Hector Rivera. She is currently retrofitting her first novel."
We met recently to discuss her web site and her poetry at the fabulous Prospector restaurant and bar.
LBC: I love this place.
Ramirez: I think the coon on the outside keeps me out.
LBC: There's a ...?
Ramirez: There's a raccoon painted on the side.
LBC: I remember coming here with my Mom for Christmas, and she saw the sign on the side and she said, "Prime rib, $7.99, ooh - this is a good place!" (laughter) That tells you a little bit about me. All right now, this is my first interview for Long Beach Culture, so we're just going to wing it.
Ramirez: No problem. Sounds good.
Beep, beep, beep, beep.
LBC: That you?
Ramirez: Nope, you?
LBC: No. OK, let's move on. Why don't we start out - tell me a little bit about, a little bio stuff, biography, background stuff.
Ramirez: Immediate stuff - I just finished my MFA at Cal State Long Beach in Poetry. I was born in Chicago. I'm youngest of ten, which was interesting. My father's family's from Spain, my mother's family is from Mississippi. Right now, I'm a photo editor and I live with three large, black cats.
LBC: Where are you a photo editor at? For whom?
Ramirez: A place called Photo Edit, down here in Long Beach.
LBC: Ah, Long Beach. We like that local angle. So, let's see...Let's start by talking about your site. How long has Strongbox been up?
Ramirez: It's about a year old now, and I started out pretty much just wanting to...I went to art school for some time, as a kid, and I decided that I just wanted to learn how to do graphics. And then I realized that there are really a lot of talented poets that were unable to get their work out, or weren't brave enough to do, you know, the featured readings, things like that. And I fought through that for years. I did about five and a half years of poetry slams, and featured readings. And that was...performance poetry was my thing for a while.
LBC: For the uninitiated, what is performance poetry, as opposed to the other kind?
Ramirez: Performance poetry is like when you go to, uh...What would be a good example? Usually it's the kind of harsh - well not always harsh - but certainly it's the kind of poetry that really gets everyone involved. It incites your audience, there's a lot of rhyme to it. It has a strong background in rap. Doing things like that. You do actually get out there and perform, you know. You don't get up there and read the nice poem by T.S. Elliott. You get up there, the majority of the time you don't have any written work with you. And you scream or you make them laugh or it's all shock value, you've got to get them interested. And a lot of them have big purses, you know, if you win. In '95 I tied for first a Lollapalooza, Dominguez Hills. So you're competing against people all over the US, or people all over the state.
LBC: So you found a way to make money off poetry?
Ramirez: A little bit, yeah. It's really difficult. That's also where the chap books come in - a lot of poets will have their own book done up at, say, Kinko's or some other printing place. And then when they go out to feature, if someone likes them, they'll end up buying them. So a lot of people get those. Barnes and Noble has also started really getting into the local poet. And so, they will actually sell some of the books for you. If they're interested in your work.
LBC: How do you get someone like that interested in your work? By going to these poetry slams and the competitions?
Ramirez: Well, for them - they like a little bit lower key kind-of stuff. So they do hold their own poetry readings.
LBC: Less like the rap thing?
Waitress: Do you want menus?
LBC: I think we're just going to take up some space here and then flee.
Waitress: Oh, OK.
Ramirez: They like the more quiet, intellectual kind of poetry, so they hold poetry readings and people go and they read their work. They're particularly impressed by urban things that aren't vulgar. 'I'm from the streets, but I don't have to be vulgar' kind of thing. There's definitely a market for it. And so a few of my fellow MFA-ers have been ones to make it in there. And they're doing pretty well with their sales.
LBC: Excellent. That's pretty cool. Let's see...how long - oh, we did that one. So why did you, what was the motivation for getting your site up there? Was it to self-publish or was it more of an egalitarian thing? Like, 'well, there's a lot of people out there who need a forum and I'm going to give them one?'
Ramirez: That was, that was the beginning of it, and then I realized that I could still market this site to other universities because there are some universities who are looking for creative writers as professors. It seems to me though, that a lot of the people who graduated with MFA's are quite timid about their work and about their talent. And so, they don't necessarily go out there looking for places to read, or places to teach. And the majority of them, that's what they want to do. I am not one of them, however. So, I have been, you know, sending it out to different colleges who have strong MFA programs, who host a lot of poetry, that kind of thing. And then as well, I'm trying to get in touch with Amazon.com, who has also gotten into publishing small chap books, and things like that. So, I don't know, maybe one day I'll be a small press, or something.
LBC: How did you hook up with the other artists on your site? Like, mmm, you have twelve poets - are those people that you knew, or did they submit things to your site once they saw it was up there? How does that work?
Ramirez: A little bit of both. Ah, the first, I want to say the first five, including myself, were people that I graduated with, so I'd known their work, I'd performed with them all. Then after a while, I would get people, after I graduated, people who were in the program currently - that I didn't know, that would submit work to me. As well, I have a couple people on there that I've never ever seen.
LBC: So, are you accepting new work? How often does the site change?
Ramirez: Pretty much, the most change that it goes through is when I get new work from the poets that are already in existence. So their pages become larger or work trades in and out. I do get a lot of submissions, but for some reason I tend to get a lot of submissions from really angsty 16 year old girls. So I don't accept a lot of their work.
LBC: So, you're the board that decides whether or not...?
Ramirez: Pretty much, that's me.
LBC: Your taste rules.
Ramirez: Actually, I don't know if it's so much my taste. There's some work on there that I think is very intelligent work, that isn't necessarily my cup of tea. But I know that it's quality work.
LBC: Well, that's what I meant. I wasn't meaning to imply that you only publish stuff that you, like, agree with or strikes a particular chord with you. But you're the one who decides, 'well, this is shit' or 'this is gonna run.'
Ramirez: Exactly, I'm the final word.
LBC: Well, what would your title be over there? Editor, web mistress?
Ramirez: Web mistress is pretty much what I call myself.
LBC: So mostly your site is a clearinghouse for writing and poetry. What's up with the music links? Are those just friends of yours?
Ramirez: The music links...Some of them I don't know either. But the majority of them are friends. I've found that there are a lot of poets out there who do both the written work and turn it into song. And so, the ones that I have on there are the ones who would consider themselves both poets and musicians.
LBC: What do you know about Sweet Otis?
Ramirez: Sweet Otis. Sweet Otis is, I went to high school with the bass player, Josh Lopez. And, uh, have you guys met?
LBC: Yeah, as a matter of fact, I wrote 'em up a couple, few years ago.
Ramirez: His stepbrother is my best friend. So that's how we all hooked up. If they ever get back in the groove of things - they're all trying to make money right now, but they actually wanted me to do some spoken word for them on their next CD. So it'll really be interesting getting together with them for that.
LBC: If somebody wanted to submit something to your site, how would they go about doing that, exactly?
Ramirez: There are several links on there that tell you you can write to the editor, and that will come straight to me.
LBC: Did you design the site yourself? Do all the...
Ramirez: Most of it. I took the base of the design from somebody called Twin K. She's in Germany actually, an artist that I think she was the first person to really tell me that they were impressed with the site. Because, when I used her original graphics, I wrote to her and I said, you know, check it out, see if you're ok with what I've done with them. And she said, you know what, I have a very limited time with English, but she was so impressed with the site that she sat up all night with her dictionary, and went through it. And she said she was really touched, so...
LBC: That's pretty cool.
Ramirez: So, I thought that was great.
LBC: So you're, uh, representing?
Ramirez: I guess.
LBC: So tell me, what's your long-term goal with the web site?
Ramirez: With the web site? I have had some aspirations, to perhaps, almost be an agent. You know, for some of the people on it. I don't know about so much publishing, considering myself as a...
LBC: You mean publishing in terms of, like, paper publishing?
Ramirez: Even web publishing, there has gotten to a point now on the web that you can get, you know just like you have an ISP number for books, there's - I don't know exactly how it works, but you can publish things on the web in a similar way. You know, and you own the rights to it after it comes to you and all that. But, um, I would rather just be an agent for some people that I think are pretty talented and might, you know, not know how to get their work out there or, you know, there's just so much competition. You know, have somebody working for them.
LBC: Right, that's cool. If somebody wanted to, is there a way they could go out and pick up one of your chap books?
Ramirez: They would have to get in touch with me.
LBC: And they could do that through the web site?
Ramirez: Um hmm.
LBC: OK, all right now let's talk a little bit about your poetry - Remember, I know diddly about poetry. I know about writing a little bit, I know about music, I know about art, I know about photography; I know nothing about poetry. All the poetry I've ever written was 16-year-old angsty poetry.
Ramirez: That's the best kind.
LBC: It was so bad - it all rhymed... I mean, it was just awful.
Ramirez: Oh, you never know, you bring it back out - you might have another piece.
LBC: Hmm. I noticed you don't use conventionally beautiful imagery in your poetry. You concentrate on images, visual, tactile, olfactory, gustatory - definitely a college educated word - that some people would find off-putting. Is that intentional?
Ramirez: You know, I think it just might be me. It's probably beautiful imagery to me, you know. Some of it, certainly, I want it to be - I've always been very, I think, aware that I was female. And you know, like I say, I'm the youngest of ten, and eight of those are female. And so, I've always been very aware of being female and very aware that I - for instance; One of the biggest slams I ever did there was a young girl of about 17 and she did wonderful poetry, but it was very feminine, and she was a little quiet. And she was just overlooked, and she was incredibly talented, and I think a lot of the times the imagery that women put out is not secondary or unpopular, but when you're doing performance poetry, and I really do write for my audience. It has to have an edge of masculinity to it, in order for them to be really taken by it. It has to have some aggressiveness to it. Otherwise, they call it literary poetry, which is the kind of poetry that stays in a book. People will read it, but you don't perform it.
LBC: So the aggressive imagery is intentional.
Ramirez: Yes. I try to pretty it up.
LBC: I liked the one about the loser at Portfolio who was hitting on you. That was Portfolio we were talking about?
Ramirez: Yup, that was Portfolio.
LBC: Do you do a lot of reading at coffee houses and stuff?
Ramirez: I used to. I used to do them probably two, three nights a week. I started as an open reader when I was about 20, and then got popular enough to become a featured reader for a couple years, and then I moved into the slams, and that will burn you out very quickly. So then I just went to school.
LBC: So you're not doing the slams anymore? Or do you do them...
Ramirez: No. Can't do them at all. I still do features, actually, the last feature I did was for Running Over Burning Bridges. I did this book in tandem with a poet named Hector Rivera, and so we did a feature together in San Pedro. But it's really hard on you, it really is, you know. You go there and every time it's like, I've got to be this big cheerleader for myself, and become this scared 13-year-old inside, and everybody's gotta be excited by me, and sometimes they are. Unless I read in Huntington Beach, and then you just get chased by Nazis.
Ramirez: I went to Huntington Beach with one of the bands on the site, actually, Reel Big Fish - this was years ago before they were signed - and we were there and we were putting up some posters for different readings, and they came along and said, "We don't want your nigger shit here," and pretty much ran us off. And they were the biggest Nazis I'd ever seen.
LBC: Goddamn! That's fucked up. This is like, what, in 2000 or something?
Ramirez: Mmm, close, yeah. You find out where your audiences are, that's why I tend to stick to LA and Long Beach.
LBC: That's fucked up. I mean, when I see you, I see a beautiful woman, you know. I think people who don't see that, it's their loss.
Ramirez: They didn't care. They were like, she's brown, get her out.
LBC: Jesus Christ. Well, that's just depressing. I'm sorry, I didn't mean to depress myself. Let's see, I notice in your work, you're not afraid of pop cultural, pop culture allusions. What does this say about who you imagine your audience to be? Or do you write for your audience, or do you just write for you?
Ramirez: I definitely, after so many years of performing, I definitely write for the audience. I want you to be, I don't want people to think of poetry as, like, you know, I've got to take this poetry class and gonna be just another dead guy, you know. Writing about the civil war or something like that. And so when I write, even though I don't perform anymore, I still write for that audience. And I think I really identify with some of those images of pop culture because, you know, I guess I'm an '80's kid, you know. That's what we know. We know, we know the thirty second sound bite, that's our era. We didn't have the muttonchops or all of that, you know, all of that. So, I think it's one way that, you know, if I go out there and I have an all white Huntington Beach audience, whether they're interested in who I am as a person or not, they know what I'm talking about. They remember those commercials or those cartoons, that movie idol, whichever.
LBC: So it's not all about art, there's a little bit of business acumen coming into it as well.
Ramirez: Um hmm, sure.
LBC: Cause there's a lot of artists, maybe the MFA's you were talking about, it's like the side of their brain where they do the art stuff works real good, but the side of their brain where they do the business stuff doesn't work at all.
Ramirez: It's very difficult.
LBC: Like you said earlier, a lot of people who write poetry also do music, and/or do painting, or do lots of different kinds of art, other than poetry. Is there anything else that you do that you're passionate about?
Ramirez: I'm a visual artist. I went to Orange County High School of the Arts, of all things. And so I've done lots of visual art over the years, anything from sculpture to painting, jewelry making, different things like that. So I still get my hand in there. Once I started in the MFA it was just all writing. And so I started to really miss that other child. You know, it was putting more attention on this child, so I think the web site - starting to design the graphics and build things like that. That was a way for me to draw that art back into it.
LBC: Have you thought about putting a page on there of photographs of your sculptures, or representations of any of your other kind of art?
Ramirez: Oh definitely, that's underway. That's underway as we speak.
LBC: Getting back to your writing, though - you depict a working class world; does this represent your own background or your audience's or both?
Ramirez: Absolutely mine.
LBC: I guess being one of ten kids, unless your name is Bush - don' t get me started...
Ramirez: The horrible...
LBC: Gosh, have you heard what he's already done, just today? He's putting the screws on some abortion rights thing; he's gonna cut off federal funding to groups that have the temerity to even mention abortion to their clients...
Ramirez: Exactly, and now he's in the church.
Ramirez: Now he's in the church. I read this morning, he said, "Instead of giving you money to help out welfare kids, I'm going to go to the churches and show them how to help out those kids."
LBC: Uugghhh, it's going to be a dark 4 years.
Ramirez: It is.
LBC: It's going to be bad. OK, we're getting close to the end of my prepared questions. Here's one I completely don't understand - submitted by my girlfriend - but it might make sense to you.
LBC: 'Tell me a little bit about your process.'
Ramirez: Oh, OK.
LBC: Ah, you do understand.
Ramirez: Well, considering I just finished a...I just finished a 75 page thesis of my process.
LBC: Oh my God. A thesis, does that mean you're going for a Ph.D. or something?
Ramirez: Well, the MFA is actually the same thing...how would you say the... same number of units as a PHD? Like an MA you would do 30 units, an MFA, because they think ahh you're just creative writing, or you're just painting, we're going to make you take all these other ridiculously difficult units, and so I have 60, just like a PHD would have 60.
LBC: Then why not get the Ph.D.?
Ramirez: Because they didn't - until I was halfway through with my MFA - offer a PHD in creative writing.
LBC: Bastards! Ok, so what about your process?
Ramirez: My process - that's very funny because before I wrote my thesis, I sort of sat around thinking, ok, I have to write about my meth... - they have a section called methodology. I'm thinking, well you know, most poets pretty much sit around, get drunk, break up with someone, and then write at 3 o'clock in the morning in their underwear about, you know, how you hurt me, and I'm going to kill you in your sleep...
LBC: So, you've seen my work?
Ramirez: It's probably pretty familiar.
LBC: I'm sure it is.
Ramirez: I have some tucked away in a dark corner, somewhere.
LBC: Back when you thought poems had to rhyme.
Ramirez: Exactly. And for some reason, big words always had to be in there - Fašade was always a good word to throw in.
LBC: Well it's got that special "C" in the middle.
Ramirez: Exactly. I got to the point where I said, OK, how technically - if I was thinking about it as technical writing, how do I do this? And for the most part, it's sound. When I first started... my parents are very religious now, but as a kid, they really weren't. And we would have maybe one or two times a year in church, and it would be like big, black, Baptist churches, and all I remembered was singing and big, fat women with fans. And I was just mesmerized that they could work with sound, the preacher would get up there, and he could rhyme, and he could reason, and it would be the most, you know, eloquent, beautiful thing. And it would amuse you, and it would keep your attention, and it would teach you at the same time. And so, it really started with sound, for me. And a big thing about my poetry, is if it doesn't feel good in the mouth, don't use it. And so, words that feel good in the mouth, I just roll around lines, I have this whole file on my computer - of lines. You know, they don't match up to anything. But - Oh, this sounds good, so I'll go back and find it later. So I find a good sound, something that sound good, and work from there. Whether it be syllabic count, or you know, assonance, dissonance, different things like that. Or sometimes, you know, it's something funny that someone said. It's, it's very little things set me into a poem. And then after that, it's working with, uh, how much the audience can stand.
LBC: How do you mean?
Ramirez: Can you take this subject for three pages? Or can you take it for a paragraph? Have I exhausted it? I can not stand a poem, or a poet, the poem didn't do anything to me, I can't stand a poet that exhausts a subject. Do not say the same thing twice, you're not a politician. So, it's again, I guess it just goes back to would this, would I want to see this on stage?
LBC: Ok, cool. Yeah, I just love the way, you know, my mom is into the whole Jesus thing you know? And, I've been to a lot of different kinds of services and, yeah, them fire and brimstone Pentecostal preachers? They're awesome! You know, they start real quiet and soft, and you've got to lean in to hear, and as they go on and get a little louder, a little bigger, and by the end, it's all (loud noises).
Ramirez: Everybody's screaming and old ladies running in the aisles, Exactly.
LBC: I love that stuff. It scares me, it scares the hell out of me.
Ramirez: Absolutely. But I would love to be able to do that to an audience one day.
LBC: On your own terms.
LBC: We talked about your long-term goal for your web site, do you have one for your poetry? I mean besides being published and stuff. Is there anything else you want to do with it?
Ramirez: Publishing, definitely. Eventually I might get back into performing. But, I'd like to do it in tandem with someone. I'd like to have a group that performs. Something really powerful, something like that.
LBC: Maybe create your own forum for the performance, as opposed to going to somebody else's?
Ramirez: Exactly, exactly. As well, I also write a lot of fiction, and so, I'm retrofitting a couple of novels right now. And maybe one day I'll, I don't know, I'll be a published author who can pay bills and can sit home and write poems.
LBC: Yeah, what's your work schedule like? I know you have a day job where you go and do the photo-editing thing.
Ramirez: 8-5, Monday through Friday.
LBC: When do you write? Do you have a set schedule or pattern when you write? Do you have a time when you write everyday? Or a time every week, or how does that work?
Ramirez: Usually I end up writing on the bus. I ride the bus everywhere. So I just write on the bus. And it screws me up a lot of times, cause I'll miss my stop, and end up riding all the way back to work.
LBC: It's about the art, dammit!
LBC: So, what do you know about these 'long beach culture.org' people, anyhow? Anybody can have a web site...
Ramirez: One thing I really like about LBC.org is that they're really good at community. You know, the community of artists. There isn't that kind of artist's commune that they had in the '60's and '70's anymore. And at least, in the computer age, we can do that over the net. I really would like to see a lot more artists cross over into some other form of art or get that other type of artist, you know, to work in tandem with something. Because I really think Long Beach, you know, it could - it could be a real cultural center if we all weren't so lazy and stoned.
LBC: Excellent quote. I like that. So your work is kind of cut out for you.
Ramirez: I guess so. I mean, unfortunately Americans aren't as literate as we would want to be. You know, I just think that we need to make art a lot more important. It's so - it's like the bastard child of intelligence. It's, "Oh, you're really good at that, but now go do something that makes money. Something real."
LBC: Go learn how to type, sweetie.
Ramirez: Exactly. So I think we've killed off our, our you know, possible Renaissance Man.
LBC: Well at least in terms of writing. I remember a few years ago watching the Civil War documentary on television. And, I mean, they had these guys who were born, you know, in an outhouse in Arkansas. And they wrote these letters to their wives and girlfriends that absolutely sang with poetry. I mean, they were just, just achingly beautiful, you know. And now, the conditions are the exact reverse, and so is the level of achievement, of people -in terms of how they express themselves in writing.
LBC: It's amazing to me. And it's appalling and it's dreadful.
Ramirez: Exactly. It's a very, very useful communication skill and I think, you know, and I think it just shows how communication has broke down, broken down. I think if you can write, everybody wants to know, what are you going to do with an English degree? Are you going to be a teacher? Are you going to teach middle school? God, no. But you can do almost anything if you can master the language. You know, you can edit for this magazine or you can be a technical writer for, you know, Douglas. Anything.
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