By Jade Sylvan
Jade Sylvan: So I’ve been thinking a lot of the modern sort of Punk Rock DIY touring that happens now, you know, like, people in a car driving to a place, and sometimes you have a big show at a venue and get a lot of money, and sometimes you have like, a house show to five people and you stay on people’s couches, and when you’re doing that, you sort of get invited into people’s lives in a way I don’t feel like many travelers really get invited in. I wonder how much of that is because you’re in this role that’s been around for a long time. Like, this “wandering poet” thing, and I wonder if people sort of react to that in an atavistic way.
Brian S. Ellis: There’s a weird relationship that happens when you’re traveling with the places that you stay. I mean, sometimes there are shows in houses and sometimes there are shows in basements, and depending on the environment things are wildly different. Sometimes when you’re on tour, you’re always performing, even when you’re not onstage, and that works for some people. Some people have a vast difference between themselves on stage and off, and for some people there’s no difference. When you trade in enlightenment, there’s like this expectation that you’re an enlightened being. And some people who travel remain in character the whole time, and some people don’t remain in character, and sometimes they’re horribly disappointing to the person they stay with.
JS: So like, which of those people would you consider yourself?
BSE: I share a lot on stage, but when you’re staying with someone else, they really want to talk to you. There’s things they want to tell you. They’ll invite you back to their apartment and be like, “Oh, I don’t wanna party, I just wanna go to bed,” and they won’t invite anyone else, but then when you get back there, they want to stay up talking.
JS: That’s so the disease of writers. It’s happened to me since I was a kid. Somehow you blink, “Nonjudgmental! I will listen to you!” and people you’ve never met want to tell you all their secrets. But then there’s that reciprocity because you’re stealing everything they’re saying. I don’t think they’d share the same stuff if it were just like, a sister-in-law in town that needed a place to stay.
BSE: No, and I don’t think it’s just because you’re like, a performer. I think if someone reads your writing, and they feel like you’ve shared something of yourself with them, and it’s really special to them, they want to share with you. And a lot of the times they’ll be like “I need to tell you something really important,” and a lot of times they tell you and it’s not that shocking. Sometimes people just hang onto things for a long time.
JS: I think it’s really interesting the level of immediate honesty people present to you when you position yourself in that role. I was staying with this twenty-one-year old blonde college girl and her roommate last spring after a show, and I was a little like, “Oh man, I’m too old for this. I wanna go to bed and she wants to stay up and smoke weed and talk,” but then she was like, “You know, I’m married. I’ve been with my husband since I was sixteen. We’re living apart right now because I feel like I need to experience being on my own, but I’m still in love with him.” It was totally not what I expected, and it was crazy that she opened up to me, who she didn’t know at all, in that way. But do you feel like, I mean, you’re not even a person to them at that point. It’s sort of like this idea of wisdom. My big thing right now is the poet/prophet archetype is all about mystery. I mean, it’s getting at the mysteries of life, or “dealing in enlightenment,” as you put it, but that also necessitates that you be a little mysterious. I mean, do you feel like you need to put up walls?
BSE: I try not to. Or well, I don’t know. I feel like I’ve traveled with other poets and I’ve watched them do it. I try to not forcefully show my personality to anyone or not show my personality to anyone. I think because of things I’ve written about in the past, I’ve definitely gone to shows at colleges where the kids have read my writing and they’ve expected me to party pretty hard and like, get crazy and do something weird. But you know, that’s what I get for writing what I write about, and usually I just want to sleep after shows. I mean, performing poetry is draining, and I feel like it’s supposed to be draining.
JS: Well, and traveling. I mean, traveling all day and then performing poetry. It’s a draining thing, emotionally and physically.
BSE: And when I’m on stage I try to drain myself. I’m trying to release as much energy as possible. I feel like that’s a good performance.
JS: Because you take your job seriously.
BSE: Yeah. But also sometimes I feel like I’m being really boring. Like, I’ll be hanging out with someone who doesn’t know me but they like, wanna hang out, and I’ll feel like I’m super boring, but then I hear about it later and they’ll be like “Oh my god, Brian, the last time you were here, it was the funniest time, do you remember when you said this?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t.”
JS: Well, I think that’s the same thing, where they hang off of everything you do and say more than they would another person because they have these expectations, because you represent this idea of Poet. I probably think about this way too much, but it almost seems like a continuation of some sort of ideal that we don’t even recognize. That idea of Homer, like, “the wandering poet.” And that is mythologizing it, but people want to mythologize things. What do you think people want from that person?
BSE: I think it’s good to be a part of a network.
JS: It all goes back to Facebook.
BSE: I think Facebook is a computer program that monopolizes on a very basic desire. I think there’s something really pure about letting someone stay at your house who’s traveling, and I think people want to do something altruistic, and it’s hard to know anymore whether doing a good deed will turn out not to be.
JS: You mean like something bad will happen because of it?
BSE: Like giving a bum spare change. It’s not that people don’t want to give that person money…
JS: They’re worried about what they’re gonna do with it, and like, will that mean the act was wrong if they go and spend it on booze.
BSE: Or like, “Was I duped? Am I naive?” I think people really like the idea of being able to do something that they know is good. And they like the idea of creative people just traveling and picking up ideas and dropping them off and moving on.
JS: It sort of becomes part of the job, right? I mean the fact that people let writers in more than they would let in other people, if an artist’s responsibility is to mirror life back to people. It’s like a natural symbiotic relationship.
BSE: Well, I think the way the United States is set up economically, our situation is set up to be resistant to travel. Staying in the same place and building a fortified situation and safety net is rewarded, and the concept of the vacation is set up as this sort of necessary release valve. Vacations are set up to keep people in the same place and keep them from doing real traveling. There’s a lot of stigma around traveling in a certain sector. When it comes to getting a job or being insured or being a part of this certain world, traveling is looked down upon and is seen as mistrustful because you can’t be kept track of.
JS: Right. It’s seen as being transient or frivolous, depending on how you do it and how much money you have, basically.
BSE: I think that for the good of the greater organism there’s a certain amount of necessity in a certain segment of the population doing a lot of traveling as sort of like, direct unauthorized communication.
JS: Carrying ideas.
BSE: Physically carrying ideas, in a way that does not come from any monetarily backed media source, which Facebook is a part of.
JS: Can you de-abstract that?
BSE: Well, like, hitchhiking’s illegal, and it’s widely demonized as like, something that’s very dangerous to do. You can’t trust people who are hitchhiking, and people who pick up hitchhikers are usually rapists, right? But when you talk to people who’ve actually done it, everyone’s shocked by how nice everyone else is. The thing that I’ve found the most in all of my touring, or traveling, or whatever you want to call it, is people are generally really nice, and people who’ve traveled are always trying to tell people, “I was so shocked at how friendly everyone was to me. I couldn’t believe it!”
JS: Do you think traveling brings that out in people just because you’re in a more vulnerable place?
BSE: Well, when you’re traveling, you’re appreciation of things goes through the roof. When someone’s like, “Hey I’ve got these, um, instant potatoes in my cupboard that’ve been sitting there,” you’re like, “Yes! Oh my god! Thank you!” But I think on the reverse end of it, when people see that you are completely at their disposal, they feel like “Oh, I’ll help them because they genuinely need it. I understand this situation perfectly.”
JS: Right. “I understand people need food and shelter and ways to get from here to there.”
BSE: And like what I was saying before, when people know what they’re doing that’s good now will be good later. You know, when people are generous there’s that risk of what happens to that act over time, and if I was generous to someone who later I view as a bad person, what was an act of generosity later becomes something else. Generosity by necessity has a connotation of like, a wise act.
JS: Right, and everyone’s so afraid of that. I mean that’s why people are assholes in day-to-day life, right? Cause if you’re nice to somebody and it turns out that they’re not what you expected or whatever, then you’re a fool, so it’s way easier to be a douchebag and shut everybody out. But is it just because you’re so vulnerable when you’re traveling? I mean, how do they know that you’re not a douchebag when you’re on the road? How do they know this will be a generous act? What is it about that situation?
BSE: I think people have their suspicions and their superstitions and I think it’s mostly superstition. I think it depends a lot on what you look like and a lot on what you say you are.
JS: So if you say you’re a poet…
BSE: Right I think there’s something to saying you’re a poet. It catches a lot of people off guard.
JS: Well, cause most people don’t think of poets as being real things that exist in the world, right? So I feel like if you say “Oh I’m a poet, I’m making my way across the country touring with my poetry,” people are like, “I just met a djinn! I just met something I’ve read about in fairy tales, and I need to take care of this magical thing…”
BSE: Or they think you’ve like taken too much drugs. It’s like saying you’re a wizard.
JS: (laughs) Like, “Yeah, man, sure. You’re a wizard.”
BSE: Or some people, you tell them that and they’re like, “Well, do it. Do a poem. Poem me.”
JS: Has that happened to you?
BSE: So many times.
JS: What do you do?
BSE: I shake my head, and then they kind of don’t believe me. And then they’re like, “Well, do you have a book?” And then you have to like, produce proof.
JS: And what do they do when you pull out your books?
BSE: Well, sometimes I’ve not had my books on me and they’re like, “Ha. All right.” Other times when I have had them they make that noise people make like when you explain a magic trick, or slight of hand, like, “Oh, that’s how it gets done.”
JS: It is sort of like this trope, like the wandering poet who you take in and he comes into your house and you feed him, and maybe later he’ll like, write a poem and sing about you. I mean, it’s a story people have heard. People know how to respond in the story, and that’s part of the reason why stories exist. I feel like in that situation, because they know the moral of the story – which is, “be good to that poet,” because it’s gonna be a good deed and he’s gonna like, bring good ideas to the world, or depending on what story you’re reading, he might be like, God, dressed up or whatever.
BSE: Or just like, you need to help Johnny Appleseed.
JS: Right, because he’s doing a thing for the betterment of the world so you don’t have to, and your job is to help him. I assume you like touring?
BSE: I love it. It’s really fun. Not everybody does. And it’s not for everyone. I come back from tour and it’s really hard to explain. You usually just give up and tell people you had a good time, and you don’t always have a good time. Sometimes you have a really bad time. I think my second tour was a really rough one. I can’t even really pinpoint it. The shows were great and I met cool people who I later became really good friends with, but overall the traveling took a lot out of me and really drained me.
JS: I’ve done a lot of a traveling, with art, without art, super low budget/no budget traveling, and the point for me has never been to have a good time. The point has not been to have fun. The point almost without exception is that I enjoy experiencing different things, and that’s a way to guarantee that you’ll experience different things that are not in a routine for an extended period of time, and that’s a hard experience to relate to someone who hasn’t done it. Did you travel or hitchhike before you wrote at all?
BSE: A little bit, but not that much. I traveled a little before. Like, I’d hitchhiked through New England, but it’s incomparable to the amount of traveling I’ve done since I started writing. Then I took the train across the country and the scale got so much bigger.
JS: Has it changed you?
BSE: I’m so much closer to myself from it. And I think I’ve become the same person all the time, no matter who I talk to, which was not true before. Only recently have I had jobs where I told them I write outside of work. It took me a long time to tell people I was a poet. I went on tour a couple times and I’d run into people on busses or trains and they’d ask me what I was doing and I’d usually make something up.
BSE: I was embarrassed, you know? I felt ashamed.
JS: Shame around what? Just because it’s something that doesn’t feel valid?
BSE: Because it was something I really wanted to do, and for me, simply stating my wants to people – it took me a long time to learn how to do that and realize it was okay. I remember the first time I actually told someone I ran into that I was on tour. It was my second tour. I was on the train, and I decided to splurge on the breakfast that’s actually served in the dining car, and when you do that, they seat you with people you don’t know to save space, and I sat down next to this really big, really old guy with no teeth. He was really chatty. We started talking. He was a Vietnam vet. He told me about Vietnam, and then he asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was a poet and I was on tour – it was the first time I’d ever said it to anyone – and he launched into all of his feelings about the beatniks. Like, launched.
JS: (laughs) But see? Like, immediately, when you put that out there, you’ve changed and you become like this symbol of all Poet.
BSE: And he loved it. And he wanted to explain to me, like he really wanted to drive this into my brain, that Vietnam vets and hippies were never opposed to one another, and the spitting-on/“Baby Killer” thing was a big myth that never really happened. And he really wanted to explain this to me, that the real problem was the squares. They were the enemy, and they were trying to keep the hippies and the military apart, but really the hippies and the military both knew how serious and dangerous war was. Like, those were the two groups that took war seriously, and they were on the same side, and the squares were actually the problem. Like, he used the word “squares.” He blew my mind.
JS: Was that like a turning point when you decided to start telling people the truth?
BSE: Well, if I hadn’t been honest with him, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did.
JS: You wouldn’t have learned that it was the squares all along.
BSE: It was really special. And then he bought my breakfast. And he had some fucked up stories of his own, like climbing into mine holes and getting infested with maggots and stuff.
JS: That’s real.
BSE: Yeah. So, I dunno. I just tell people now.
JS: Do you find that you get on better with people who’ve traveled than people who haven’t? Is the “being more of yourself all the time” something that you notice in a lot of people who tour a lot?
BSE: Not necessarily. I think that people who tour a lot are either themselves all of the time, or they have a great apparatus of this character that they build, and no one sees the real them. You get forced into these extremes. The emotions are pretty sensational.
JS: Do you have an opinion on people, not necessarily in a judgmental way, but any opinion on people who do the acting thing all the time?
BSE: I think they’re just protecting their personality because they have to. I don’t think anyone does that who doesn’t absolutely need to. I think the instinct is to look down on it because there’s something dishonest about it, but I don’t think it is really dishonest. I think you have to protect your identity. It’s pretty fragile. It’s pretty scary, and it’s very possible to not have a personality anymore.
JS: By not having a personality, what does that mean?
BSE: I mean losing your mind. Like, literally. It’s a very real possibility.
JS: Just because people want so much from you?
BSE: I think it’s a very real possibility for everyone, whether you travel or not, and when you have a routine, when you have a structure in place, then it’s easy to leave your personality in physical inanimate objects. Like, you can leave your personality in your room or your car, and it’ll stay there. When you have to keep it in your body the whole time, because people don’t always leave their identity in their bodies, but when you have to keep it in your body because you’re traveling, you become very defensive all of a sudden.
JS: It’s scary to be a body. Bodies are so fragile.
BSE: I know! I know! And they are deeply affected by sleeping and eating patterns.
JS: Totally. Like when it gets down literally to sleeping, eating, finding a place to exist, getting your body to the right place, like “I need to get my body here, at this time. That’s my job today. To figure out how to get my body from there to here.” It’s humbling and terrifying, but also empowering, because once you get to the point where you’re okay just being a body, then it’s almost like nothing can hurt you.
BSE: You show up places, and you’re from somewhere else, especially with poetry where your writing is your thoughts. Literally, it’s things you thought of. And when your thoughts are special enough to generate travel and distance, it’s really easy to get egotistical really fast. And you show up, and people want you to be really special. Some people just like, run with it, and if people ask you to be special, in some ways, it’s egotistical to try to not be.
JS: To approach it with a sense of “Okay, it’s not about me, but I’m in this position, for whatever reason, my body literally is in this position in space to fulfill this role and the responsibility to do this, so I’m gonna hold this ritual. I’m gonna do my job.”
BSE: There’s a duty to it.
JS: Yes. For me it’s like – bringing it back to the body – it’s like, my body is here, doing this. I’ve positioned my physical being in this place, and this is what I have to do, and it doesn’t mean anything. It doesn’t mean more than it means. To approach it with a sense of gratitude. There are people that you don’t know who’re excited to hear your thoughts. Like, that’s really cool.
JS: That’s a good perspective, I think, Brian. That’s wise and shit.