Poet and memoirist Alex Lemon and musician Chris Koza are in the midst of what have to be the busiest times in both of their careers. In the last six months Lemon has released his much-anticipated memoir Happy and a new book of poetry, Fancy Beasts. While Koza has embarked on an ambitious project: releasing four albums in 2010 to coincide with the seasons, along with cd-release shows for each. On April 11, Lemon joined Koza for the first of those shows, interpreting Koza’s work in an original piece of writing and reading it live at the show.
Here, the two discuss creativity, nostalgia, and the Chipmunks. And, Lemon gives the most complete answer to date regarding why soccer won’t catch on in the U.S.
Part I: Chris Koza Gets Up in my Grill
Chris Koza: Is writing an end result or the means to an end?
Alex Lemon: For me, writing is about exploration, a way to trace thought and or emotion without a predetermined destination. It is very rare that I begin a piece knowing where it’s going to end. And even if I think I do, by the time I’ve worked a piece toward its destination, I end up in a totally unexpected place. But that’s the stunningly beautiful thing about it—allowing oneself to be lost and feeling, if not good, then at least comfortable with that waywardness.
CK: Could you ever imagine writing something that “completes” your muse?
AL: Nope. I don’t think I can imagine it. Or I don’t want to—if I ever wrote that perfect poem, or the essay that I’d imagined in my mind’s eye—I would have very little motivation to do it again. Done it, I’d say, and then I’d become a secret shopper.
CK: Were you a comic book kid growing up and would you ever consider writing a comic book / graphic novel – superhero or otherwise?
AL: Wow, I haven’t thought about that stuff in ages. What a great question. I guess my answer is yes and no. I started buying comics when I started visiting my father (when I was around 9 or so) because my stepbrother was an avid collector and I idolized him. I’d buy some each weekend I visited my dad and then leave them at his house. At my mother’s, I’d never had comics. They seemed pretty luxurious and we weren’t that well off. I’d paint or draw or try to ride my bike down these rock-strewn hills or dig through the dumpsters of whatever town we were living in. But sometime after I started visiting him, even though I was leaving the comics at his house, there was a crossover and I started drawing my own comics. I created dozens of heroes, wrote their stories and then drew and colored the comics. The best one was Bolt, who wore a black ninja outfit with a bright yellow lightning bolt on it’s chest. He had a cape and shot electricity out of two of his fingers. I spent days at time, drawing those comics.
So yeah, I’d do it. For sure.
But I think my interests today would push me toward some kind of graphic novel, but you never know. My comicbook-loving stepbrother is all grown up, is a dad and owns an amazing comic bookstore in Iowa City called Day Dreams. He tells me what the kids are into these days and now and again sends me some.
CK: Has your sense of immortality increased or diminished as the years have started to gather?
AL: I don’t think I’ve ever had a sense of immortality. I always knew the fact that all of us will die, but it was just floating around in the back of my head. I always had a bit of inner-darkness but I didn’t think about it too much. But it became chronic and obsessive when I started having medical problems [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qv2HypmfOqI]. I’ve never given much thought to the legacies that artists leave behind which, I guess, in some ways makes them immortal. I’m fairly confident that my artistic participation in this life will eventually be relegated to the dustbin of history or before that’s even decided our civilization will end because the majority of us people are greedy cruelty dispensers and some large human-caused cataclysm will wipe us all out. But you never know. Crazier things have happened.
CK: Why do you think the general public is afraid to care, as a cultural direction, the idea and embrace of poetry? I feel like as teenagers, with their journals, every single person believes in poetry for at least a little while. Is it a passing ideal? An unattainable frame-of-mind for the masses?
AL: I wish I had an easily remedied answer to this because it makes me sad. That avoidance or ignorance of poetry seems to come from a matrix of a number of things. As a culture we’re pushed toward making money—we’re expected to become a part of the machinations of capitalism. So, we’re expected to know the right answers, the equation to get the solution, the fix. But poetry doesn’t traffic in binaries like that and so it’s a challenge to how we’re supposed to think about almost everything else. So it’s taken out of our lives and/or we avoid it. It can be a challenge and it can challenge us—and it’s much easier to get numbed out by the narcotics of TV or video games. Poetry doesn’t fit so well for a number of reasons and, like I said before, it’s depressing. I don’t think most people even know what kind of wonders their missing or how reading/creating might add meaning to their lives.
CK: Is the notion of consequence such a powerful deterrent that sometimes the mere idea of doing, achieving, or being something can elicit a tangible emotional response?
AL: Sure. I think so many people are afraid of being wrong and it stops them from being creative. I think it’s important to keep addressing. I think a lot of people are frozen in creative situations. Because so much of creativity—writing, painting, singing, etc.—lives in the murky area between those binaries—the right and wrong that so many people are taught to live with—they don’t know when there is no correct answer. When there is no wrong. It can be scary and uncomfortable. For example: this is the end of my seventh year of teaching writing and literature at the university level and I have yet to have more than ten percent of an intro level creative writing class be comfortable with the idea that there are no rules. That there’s no equation for success. That good writing is a result of endless failures and even when the piece of writing is done, it’s still not done done.
CK: Why is it so hard for soccer to catch on in the US?
AL: Oh, this is very complicated. Where to begin? Well, it has to do with dolly the sheep. Freegans. The erotics of hands. Diego Maradona. Alexi Lalas. The Purple People Eaters. The Mexican drug war. Toe fungus. The Icky Shuffle. Pulling one’s shirt over one’s head and sliding on one’s knees. Running for stretches of time and then running some more. Addiction. One-word proper nouns. Violence. And the average length of time a streaker runs free before they are caught.
CK: Alvin, Simon, or Theodore?
AL: Alvin, for sure. Didn’t he wear a sweater with an enormous A on it? I need to get one of those. Yeah, Alvin. But those new movies really bug me. Actually, they make me mad and I don’t know why. I get “The Rage.” Hate those movies. That and robotic monkeys. I don’t like those either.
CK: Do people recognize you on your laugh alone – in public, at restaurants, etc? It is quite an identifier.
AL: Really? I hope it’s not grating. Maybe in the school coffee shop they do, but I don’t really know. You should query my students. But now you have me all worried—am I that guy? OK, right here, right now, I’d like to apologize to everyone.
Part II: Alex Lemon Returns the Favor
AL: Huey Lewis & the News or Cheap Trick?
CK: I can’t say I’m super familiar with either band’s music – moreso their legacy and status as pop-culture oddities and punchlines. I did perform the Huey Lewis song “I Want a New Drug” – the song that was deemed the source of plagerism for the Ghostbuster’s theme song – with a jam band, and have to admit it was fun to rock out.
AL: Can you talk a little about how you came to be a musician?
CK: It was initially by accident and then by choice and constant exposure. I was always a musical little tot, but when I heard “The Entertainer” – Scott Joplin’s famous rag that also was the theme music to “The Sting” – I knew I had to figure out how do to THAT. I took piano lessons the following year from a blessed woman who had nine cats and after six or seven years, switched to one of the saintly sisters at my Catholic grade school who showed me Mozart and other classical composers. Once I entered adolescence, however, I was less inspired by classical and chamber music, and my attention turned to satan’s music; alternative grunge and rock music.
Those were the younger days…just playing music with friends, forming bands and disbanding, and reforming under different names, and feeling that music was a part of my identity. I left Portland for school at St. Olaf College with the intention of being a music major, but after 3 semesters of music theory, and a stint in the choir, I felt that compared to the musicians I was seeing on campus, I didn’t possess the technical ability to be a virtuoso performer at any instrument I knew. Also, I felt like my interest in music was more along the lines of pop music and, later I would discover, in production.
Ultimately, it has been desire, persistence, and the support of the people I count on – and the slow withering away of any other other marketable skills – that have led me to pursue music and being a musician whole-heartedly.
AL: Do you still have those huge glasses you used to wear? Any new hats?
CK: No new hats…I need to get one actually. I just keep losing the ones I have. Well, I got this hat from H&M that I really liked, but recently I was told that it was dorky, so I don’t know what to believe any more. The glasses: yes. I would love to be a contact guy, but they seem to slip, slide, and scratch my eyes after a few hours of wearing them. I use the contacts only for basketball and special events where I want to look extra sharp. Otherwise, those huge glasses are still making a permanent dent on my nose.
AL: You grew up in the Portland area, right? What was it like? Did you go to shows at the Crystal Ballroom?
CK: Portland was fantastic. I think I lucked out by living there before it’s modern heyday as a hipster paradise. So many talented, creative, beautiful people live and migrate there now, that I am somewhat intimidated to return. But for me, growing up, it was full of those hidden routines and special friends that will remain romantic and nostalgic for my whole life.
I did go to a couple shows at the Crystal Ballroom, but I wasn’t much of a concertgoer in high school anyway. I do remember seeing the Dandy Warhols performing underneath a bridge at some music festival in 1995 or something like that. I felt pretty cool.
AL: What kind of music influenced you?
CK: I don’t know…I suppose the bands that were on the posters at Spencer’s Gifts…Led Zepplin, The Doors, The Beatles, Nirvana, Pearl Jam. I listened to popular top 40 radio, oldies radio, alternative radio, hip-hop radio – anything. Lots of radio though. Radio and BMG and Columbia Music CD clubs. Wow. Rememeber those? 12 cd’s for a penny? That’s about what they’re worth now…
AL: How did [your new project] Rogue Valley come to be? Where does the name come from?
CK: I’m working on an ambitious songwriting project that encompasses the four seasons and will be comprised of four albums to be released in succession over the course of a year. I feel like giving something like that it’s own identity – a tangible image that people can grasp onto in lieu of my own regular American name, is a helpful identifier. Plus, I think it is really important to include the element of the whole band in what we’re working on right now. The songs are written and arranged with the intent that we can perform them as they are recorded without missing key textures or instruments – something that my previous recordings don’t always take into consideration. Rogue Valley is a real place in southern Oregon, so for me it represents something of an idealized pasture; a heaven on earth.
AL: I love the RV album—and there are some musical echoes from your own work—but it also has this larger, more panoramic lushness to it. It feels larger in its intimacy—does that make sense? If so, can you speak to that, or to the differences you see in the music.
CK: The major difference between this album – and the previous albums we’ve made is that this one had a clear purpose to create a mood, a consistent vibe and a somewhat linear lyrical narrative from the first to the last song. I wanted to tell the beginning of a story – or maybe it is the whole story if you take the album on it’s own – but the most important difference was approaching the recording and the songs with the idea that they were going to feel cohesive but not redundant from track 1 through track 12.
AL: Do you go to Coffee News much anymore?
CK: Ah, yet another one of those nostalgic, romanticized places. The friends and people I met there will always be very special to me, as will the Cobb Salads and Tempeh Reuben sandwiches. Almost the whole staff has changed over since I was last there, back in 2007, and I don’t get over in that direction too often anymore, but when I do, I make sure to stop in and reminisce with my tastebuds.
AL: Radishes or Rutabagas?
CK: I am a radish guy, through and through.
AL: What is your creative process like? You play a lot of shows—how do you find time to make music when you’re gigging so much?
CK: It is difficult to do. Lately I have been limiting the shows because of the songwriting, demoing, and recording I’ve got to stay on top of – not to mention the rehearsing for the release shows themselves, where we will perform the album in the season. For me, it is very helpful creatively to absolve myself of all guilt or pressure when approaching the creative process. Nobody who ever had a great idea had only one idea and that was it. The way I see it, the more one works at the process, the more results that make some sense will rise to the surface as something to hone in on later. I like to sketch, jot down notes, read, and listen to music. Those are all inspiring trade-offs that I can’t do when I’ve got a guitar in my hand, or a piano at my fingertips.
AL: Are you excited for the opening show? Can you give me more deets on the night?
CK: Exited, nervous, etc. There are so many emotions, but I am just trying to break everything down into little manageable lists that I can take care of in a logical manner.
The night is going to be my band performing the tracks in sequence from the new album “Crater Lake,” and we will have a ton of lovely, talented special guests: authors, poets, musicians, and performers. They will be incorporated into the body of the show and will offer their own riffs on the subject of springtime, to help elaborate on our set. It is going to flow like a musical or theater production more so than a rock concert. It is a rock opera, okay, lets just get that out of the way. The amazing thing about the show is that most of the performers are contributing original material to the production, which lets the show take on a life of its own. To do a show at one of the oldest, most revered theaters in Minnesota is quite an honor. [This show took place on April 11th at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, MN.]
AL: Pilled-up & Bloated Elvis or Mop-man at Popeye’s Chicken?
CK: I grew up near a Popeye’s chicken so that’s an easy one!
 Coffee News Café is located in St. Paul, MN, and is where Chris, Alex, and the staff of InDigest all originally met.
Read an essay from Chris Koza about his “Seasons” project.