Monday, February 19, 2018

“Awesomeness will step into the room”: An Essay Class Interviews Barry Maxwell

I discovered Barry Maxwell—as I do so many good writers—via Twitter, and after I read “The Good Tenant” in Split Lip Mag and “Celebration #50, 2010” in Tin House, I knew: This is a writer to watch.

When I learned Maxwell founded Street Lit in Austin, a writing workshop that meets every Saturday at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (ARCH), I immediately e-mailed to ask if I might possibly lead one of the Saturday workshops.

(Photo credit: Roberto Roldan)
On July 15th, 2017, I met a very tall Barry Maxwell at the ARCH on the corner of Neches and 7th . He shook my hand, finishing a cigarette and apologizing for the sweat from his four block walk from the bus stop.  I liked him immediately, and after spending three hours at a table with him and about fifteen other writers, he walked me back out to the corner where I waited for a cab. As I left, I encouraged him to consider UNT for his PhD once he finishes his MFA at Montana.

This semester in my Intermediate Creative Nonfiction course, I have an Essayist Spotlight Unit featuring four writers: Jaquira Díaz, Barry Maxwell, William Bradley, and Meghan McClure.  For each writer, we read five of their essays so that students might consider the recurring themes, imagery, syntactical patterns, allusions, and forms to identify: what makes an essayist’s essaying unique?  In other words, what makes a Barry Maxwell essay a Barry Maxwell essay?

I included Barry in the Spotlight Unit because of the consistency of his persona (a homeless man in Austin) and his formal range. I wanted to show students how in “Testing the Limitless,” Maxwell creates a hybrid of poetry and prose, while another essay breaks paragraphs with mathematical equations, and how one offers a straightforward narrative, another a flash.  In all of the essays, the writing comes across urgent, honest, an engaged voice demanding that this self be seen. One other reason, and the most important, I think: I knew this was a point of view and a persona my students had most likely not encountered.

I scheduled Barry’s Spotlight for February 1 and asked students to submit questions to me via e-mail by 9:00 pm the night before class.  That night, I opened my e-mail to find their questions, some of them overlapping, so I culled seven and asked Barry to answer the ones he wished to before class began the next day. I was both pleased and not surprised when he answered all seven.

Last week in class, I projected Barry’s answers to the questions my students sent me onto the screen and read each one out loud (I have a blind student, and she’s teaching me so much about how to teach the essay in different ways). I read one answer after another, and after a while, the classroom transformed into what I can only describe as a concert—students eager in celebration and inspiration, raising their hands to voice how they were connecting to Barry Maxwell, to his work, and to his words.

At one point, we agreed: We can’t let this stay in the room.

It’s too good.  


How did you become homeless? And how did you come out of that?

The short answer is that I partied till I was homeless. That usually gets at least a nod or even a laugh of “Yeah, same here,” from someone who’s been there.

It may be more than you bargained for in asking, but looking at myself from early on, straight out of high school (from which I didn’t graduate, due to my consistent lack of showing up…), I set myself up for it. I played drums, and had that romantic image of making a healthy living at it, the whole die hard musician thing, dedicated to rock and roll, man, until you “made it.” Whatever that meant. I went from my mother’s home, to a house with band mates, then to another band that traveled so much I lived in motels and on the sax player’s couch.

It set a pattern in my expectations of the world. Rootlessness. Permissions. Irresponsibility. Over the years I had some perfectly normal times with wives and jobs and real-deal lifestyles, but somehow, I had the core belief that I’d be taken care of, that I could get away with drinking and drugging and there’d be no lasting consequences, and that I’d land on my feet no matter what, like a baby falling back into mamma’s arms. It’s nice to be optimistic and have faith in the universe, but the universe only puts up with so much bullshit.

Fast forward to a situation where I was living with a wonderful woman who loved meth and drinking as much as I did—we’re still in touch, have forgiven each other, and wonder how we didn’t freakin’ die—I worked as a solo house painter and maintenance guy who always had vodka in the tool box, and snorted meth in the bathroom while the homeowner admired my meticulous work. It was a system doomed to break down. We lost my girlfriend’s house, she developed health issues requiring spinal surgery—everything came to me to step up and provide. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how! We moved from rental to rental, and eventually things collapsed. She moved to her daughter’s place, and I rode out the eviction process until it was me and what I could fit in a Honda. I didn’t have any friends who would put up with me. No more options.

There’s a lot more to it, but it ended up with my only remaining (and annoyed with me) friend dropping me off in downtown Austin, where I connected with the homeless shelter. That’s when I made it official. Client #113119 in the database. That friend and master enabler was and is Steve, from “The Good Tenant.” I don’t think he’s read it…

The way out is wrapped up in “32 Feet (per second per second),” [published in Hothouse]. I looked at my choices, and it was either fucking die and get it over with, or end up one of those grizzled old drunks who reveled in the bum-under-the-bridge life. I gave up and went to rehab, instead. It caught, and I got a room for a year through a charity program, got a GED, a little scholarship, and started courses at Austin Community College, taking writing classes with the awesome Charlotte Gullick. I lucked and shoved my way into a sublet situation, leading to an actual lease on a “you don’t pay the rent, we throw you out” handshake. Nailed a full ride to UT, and now, rootless again (sort of) in Montana! Taken care of, if you call student loans “taken care of.” Unsure of anything beyond the next semester.

Everything hinged on stopping drinking. Other addictions were just opportunistic, but quitting alcohol was the key.

At what point in your writing journey did you decide to obtain an MFA, and what drew you to the MFA in particular?

Well, school is a cozy, if stressful, environment, so there’s that whole “Please take care of me forever” thing that I still have to acknowledge, but mainly it’s because I’m proving to myself that I can finish something. That’s in addition to the more obvious attraction of hanging with the smart kids, the (allegedly) deeper or higher levels of rigor in workshops and classes, etc.

My main aim here is simply to get as much practice writing as I can, with as much input and guidance as possible. The hope for getting better at this stuff is a never-ending thing.

I have no idea what I’m gonna do when I’m done. Jill planted the idea of a PhD in my head… I dream of taking Street Lit to nonprofit levels and spreading it around in the world. Some people look down on community college writing programs, but I like the idea of getting back to helping folks who might never have dreamed of writing. Like me, I guess.

After reading your bio on your website: How does your idea about these two versions of yourself, the versions before-and-after being homeless, affect your persona in essays? Are you constantly one or the other in a single essay, or do both versions inform your persona for each essay? I hope that question makes sense. I'm just really intrigued by your understanding of yourself as different people, in a way, and how maybe you can feel more objectively about past versions in an essay, or sympathize with yourself more.

This makes a LOT of sense. I’ll try to answer without getting too weird or esoteric, but it’s an issue I haven’t figured out for myself, and I think it may be one of the things I’m essaying about or fictioning over in almost everything I write.

The meat of it is that I went from what, to me, was a “normal” human, if not quite standard-issue, to being one of the people I had looked down on, ignored, and never imagined myself as being. The entire experience was one long “My god! What have I done?” moment, and while in it, and especially while drinking, it felt like an irrevocable state. I became IT, so to speak. My beliefs about who I was became wrong. My beliefs about the world and the people I knew and trusted were wrong. And it’s such a huge thing that no matter what I do now, there is no way to shake it off, or consider myself as just the old Barry who went through some shit, and came out of it more or less whole. I’m changed from the ground up, if only in knowing that I might be sitting here this second and be wrong about everything. It’s unsettling!

The point about looking more objectively at past “me,” and sympathizing more with myself is awesome and mind-blowing, too. There is a distance, now, from which I can look back and both see that guy as the unrepentant fuckup he was, but also see how lost a child he was, too. In writing about those times, I try to be hard on that guy, not cut him any slack by making excuses, while remembering that he (just like all of us) was making the best of it. Doing what he could with what he had, however stupidly or blindly. He loved people. People loved him. He can love himself now that he has some distance. (And what’s up with Barry suddenly writing about himself in 3rd person!?)

This is helping me in writing fiction, too. Just last night in workshop we talked about how the worst villains believe themselves the hero, and that even walk-on characters think they’re the center of the story. When writing either, get into their heads for a while, and figure out what you’d do or say if you were them, at the center of their universe.

Why do you write about being homeless? We’ve been talking in class about telling the story only we can tell.

Wow. It’s a twist-up between writing the story only I can tell, and sometimes it being the only story I can tell. Things may change, and I hope I can push myself toward that change, but it’s the biggest thing that has happened to me, and it’s a preoccupation to figure it out as much as I can. To come to terms with that whole mental earthquake I talked about and make peace with it. (I feel like all these sentences deserve a question mark.)

I’ve written and am writing about not-so-homeless stuff, and I’m getting used to it. I’m beginning to reconnect with the life prior to those events, and believe that yeah, I was a kid once. I was a stepdad, a regular person, a teenager, a rock and roll idiot, and so on. Fiction helps. Blurring the lines of genre helps.

And also, I have an agenda that I can’t deny. Though I hate clunky labels, the “person experiencing homelessness” is one that’s functional. I do have a tendency to want to beat civilians (as we bums used to call the normal people) over the head with the notion that we’re all humans walking around the same world. That we all feel pain and have the same needs. That we all have cracks in our foundations, and that under the latest coat of paint, we’ve got patches over the holes in our walls.

When you write, what do you worry about?

Oh my…

·                     Am I full of shit?
·                     Why is this no good?
·                     When will they all know I’m not really a writer?
·                     Am I telling the truth?
·                     Was that last good thing THE last good thing?
·                     Who do I think I’m kidding?
·                     Am I going to look stupid?
·                     AM I stupid?
·                     Is this thing even a thing, or am I just venting to myself?
·                     Why bother? I’ll never be as good as [fill in the blank].
·                     Semicolons, commas, parentheses, em dashes, periods, and …s.
·                     Am I gonna offend people with this? (Fuck that.)
·                     Are the smart people gonna laugh at this? At me? For thinking I have anything to say?

Other than the laundry list of insecurities, I try to worry, after drafts 1 through gazillion, about passive sentences. About rhythm. About flow from one thought to the next. About getting too writer-y and screwing up clarity for the sake of a big word or a fancy phrase. About overexplaining. About honesty, most of all, in essays. About truth, most of all, in fiction.

What writers do you admire and why?

I’m not sucking up to teacher when I say Jill is one of them. I look to her for lessons in form and freedom and sheer nerve. I see a lot of poetry in Jill’s work. It’s hard for me to pin down, but in a lot of her stuff I see such a firmly woven cloth of humanity, where there’s no hiding physicality behind psychology, nor separation of the emotional from the intellectual. The whole enchilada of personhood is there in every word. (I'm making that scrunchy-nosed “Does this make any sense at all?” face.)

I’m only recently discovering poetry. Or getting comfortable with it. (Isn’t that a strange prejudice in our culture!?) I’ve started paying attention, in part, because I’ve been doing fiction workshops with some poetry track folks, and their fiction is just insanely cool. I can’t declare anyone a fave yet, but I’ve committed myself to starting each morning with reading the Poem a Day from, and just following tweets to new poems has been a treat.

My go-to favorite author is Nick Flynn. Earlier, I mentioned Charlotte Gullick at ACC. When I first started trying to write about myself in the world, she gave me a copy of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, and I felt like I’d met this guy and we’d compared notes. It gave me “permission” to write about my world and helped show me how.

When I was living at the shelter, I read constantly. It was like a drug. I read so much that I have no clue about my actual opinions of any particular book, and don’t know if I could name the ones I read! So, I can say I’m widely read, but only since school have I been hitting any reading with intent, or with an eye for learning from it. For instance, I read Flannery O’Conner’s Wise Blood during the Xmas break. Holy freaking Moley I loved it. All this time, I had no idea.

I’ve had to read more canonical stuff that I might have missed otherwise. I’ve fallen in love with Virginia Woolf, via To the Lighthouse, and can sit and live in her sentences, reading those long, mind-jumping passages over and over.

Another who has become a Holy of Holies even more than Nick Flynn is Denis Johnson. Jesus’ Son is within arm’s reach at all times. I get stuck while writing, read a random paragraph, and can move again. His poetry is frighteningly gut wrenching, too.

I workshopped a short story last night, and Johnson’s name came up. “There’s a Denis Johnson moment on page 5…” and other such comments. At first I worried I was too influenced, and had been derivative. Then I figured that at this stage of my game, derivative is fine. I’m learning from him.

I have to include Annie Dillard, Andres Dubus (the elder), Frederick Busch, George Saunders, Leslie Marmon Silko, Joan Didion—jeez, there are so many, and for so many reasons…

Along with the Poem-a-Day thing, I’ve been hitting a lot of flash fiction and nonfiction online. When I read something I like, I hop on Twitter and follow that author. So many marvelous things have landed in front of me from tweeted recommendations. (And so many new places to submit!)

We’re undergraduates, and you were at UT as a 50-something. What do you wish we knew about fellow students like you?

I had (and still have) a lot of weird presumptions that are most often mistaken. I walk in a room for the first time with a bunch of young strangers, and immediately believe them all to be calm, confident, self-possessed, and at ease. While I, on the other hand, am a nervous wreck, feeling waaaay out of place, and an imposter, at best. I’ve learned to bluff quite well and put a smile on the face of things, pretend I’m cool… Once I’ve made friends, though, it turns out they thought the same of me, and they were going nuts, too. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing any more than anybody else!

The funniest moments have been when I’ve been mistaken for a professor, or when it’s assumed I’m like, retired or something, and going to school for kicks, or that I’ve “come back to finish my degree.” Nope! People don’t know that I’m restarting a whole life from scratch.

The worst moments are when I’m dismissed as irrelevant. There is sometimes an arrogance to youth, I think, and ageism is real. (I know when I was a young punk, old folks were just a pain in my ass, writing paper checks in the express line at HEB.) I’ve got the feeling you could claim the same in reverse, just as validly.

I am also very cautious of being perceived as some sort of old creep on the predatory prowl—and I can totally understand that I look out of place among the campus crowd. I’ve had to present my student ID to prove I belonged in buildings at UT. A good thing, honestly. You never know. But that evil dude isn’t me.

Some of my most valued friends now are 30 years younger than me, and we’re all bumbling through as best we can. Years don’t mean wisdom, just wrinkles. In writing courses, I make the joke that I’m older than everyone by calendar years, but am a very young writer. Many of my classmates have been writing longer than me. And once folks get used to seeing the old fart in the room, I think they also realize that I respect them, and enjoy their company. It builds all of us up in both directions.

A quick PS: Everything you’ve read of mine was either written entirely, or was begun, while I was in community college or an undergrad at UT. Undergrads rock, y’all. Own it.

This from me, Jill: What’s next for Street Lit, and how might we start a Street Lit in Denton?

Whoa! How cool!

The Austin gang is still meeting, with a couple of guys running it who work at the ARCH and are fine writers and human beings. I trust them, and the attendee writers I’m still in touch with are happy with them, too. I think it’s good—to be honest, I was getting kinda fried… New blood=new life for the group = new words in new ways.

I’ve gone to the shelter here and met with the volunteer coordinator. Book donations are, of course, welcome, and I’m spreading the word among students and faculty. The woman also gave me a tentative green light on doing a workshop, but for some reason has not responded to calls or emails about hashing out pragmatics. I’m going to have to go grab her in person again to get it rolling.

What’s the homeless and poor folk situation like in Denton? I’ll hop on Google and see what’s up. And if there’s any advice I’d give myself-in-the-past regarding doing something like this, it’s “Show the fuck UP.” No matter what, no matter if nobody comes. No matter if everyone’s afraid to write. Show up, be there, and people will gravitate to you. The pens’ll get put to use, and words will come. Awesomeness will step into the room and take over.


Barry Maxwell is a 57-year-old native of Austin, Texas, newly transplanted to Missoula, Montana, for the UM MFA program. He is the proud founder of Street Lit and the Street Lit Authors Club, which provide books and creative writing workshops to Austin’s and now Missoula’s homeless communities, and is a fist-waving supporter of the arts in unexpected places, from unexpected sources.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012).  She teaches essaying at the University of North Texas.

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