Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Interview with Artist and Poet Jose Faus

I’m pleased to bring you my second in-person interview, this time with Jose Faus.  In addition to being an internationally-recognized visual artist with murals on display in Mexico and Bolivia, Jose is a poet, playwright and community volunteer.  He was kind enough to sit down with me last week and share some of his incredibly rich, diverse experiences with poetry and the arts, as well as some of the personal journey that stoked his seemingly boundless creativity. 
Let’s go.
Lauren: How do you feel your painting interacts with your writing?  How do the two mediums balance out?
Jose: I hate the separation.  I’m an artist.  Period.  Writing is art.  It’s a different way of creating.  Like painting, it involves images.  It’s like radio vs. television.  With TV, as with painting, you trust what you see.  With radio, as with writing, it’s up to the listener to conjure the images. 
As an artist, some things come more readily when I’m writing than when I’m painting.  Painting is more emotionally felt for me.  Colors can work against each other.  I remember when I realized that, I was painting a creek bed, and suddenly, I painted a log a particular color that made it pop out.  It struck me how powerful that is.  Words also rub up against each other.  There are things they do for which color is insufficient.  But sometimes words can be too strict, which sends me back to my brushes and paint.
Lauren: In your artist statement, you talk about being concerned with the individual and the communal.  You paint murals, which often mean other people are involved in painting them.  Tell us about some of your collaborations and how that affected your work.
Jose: Collaboration leads to discovering unexpected commonalities.  It also takes work in new directions.  Working with others, you get a lot.  I’m always afraid I’ll override someone else, but that doesn’t ever happen.  It’s like call and response.  It’s beautiful.
I’ve been on a panel in the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) and at a poetry festival Split This Rock with the Latino Writers Collective and we presented a reading about displacement. I’ve participated in several rengas in the past few years, at least five.  Two were with the Latino Writers Collective and one was for those readings.  One was called America: Here & NowIt wasn’t just poetry, either, it was visual art and performance.  Thirty local poets participated, including myself.  Miriam Carymn Goldberg did a renga about Kansas, which drew 150 poets together. 
I worked with the sculptor, Matthew Dehaemers, on a piece about the immigrant experience.  Matt is of Dutch descent.  He did the visual pieces and I did a series of poems from the Dutch family’s point of view.  Immigration has become this politically-charged subject.  It’s become associated with Latinos, but people still come here from other countries.  All immigrant stories are essentially the same.  They come to America in search of opportunity.  They arrive, they toil, they learn the language, they assimilate.  They shed their old identity.  The following generations lose their traditions.  Then, at some point down the line, there’s the rediscovery.  Matt found he had to re-create and compose his own history. 
Another collaboration project I did was through the Jewish Community Center Fellows program.  [Click here for YouTube video of the performance.]  I worked with a dancer, Anjali Tata Hudson, to write a poetry/performance piece.  The theme was resistance.  We incorporated Jewish traditions, consulted with rabbis and Jewish artists, studied art that came out of concentration camps.  It was about a woman expressing her relationship to rabbinical law.  I learned so much.  The rhythm of my words had to be precise to fit with the dance.  It reinforced things I’ve always thought about writing and art.  I had to think about balancing the words and the silences.  Thelonious Monk’s music is the silence between the notes.  You have to give as much weight to what’s between the words.  It taught me to pay attention to those elements.
I wish I could keep doing things like that but—you know.  Money and time. 
Lauren: As a Latina, I’m always interested to hear about other families’ experience in coming to this country.  Will you tell us about that?
Jose: Yes, I came here when I was nine.  My real father had disappeared when I was three.  I feel no real connection there.  I have two or three concrete memories, pictures.  That’s it really.  I’m in contact with some of his family from Spain.  But my mother got remarried and moved to the States with my sister.  My brother and I lived with my grandparents for a while, until we were sent for.  It was a strange time, a sort of arrested development.  Back in Colombia, life had very different rhythms, different customs, different sounds, different relationships.  Then suddenly, everything changed.
When I came here, the first lesson was that I was brown and there would be issues with that.  My stepfather warned me about it.  I never knew brown was a distinction.  I’m not saying there isn’t racism in Colombia because there is.  I was just too young to understand, but coming here made me realize, maybe earlier than I would have.  I had cousins, one was light skinned with light eyes.  Rafael was dark.  The rest of us fell somewhere in between.  So not only was racism an issue, there was no support.  No one ever told me that it wasn’t right.
We lived on the West Side for two or three years, in an apartment.  My brother and sister and I went to Redemptorist.  Then my sister and brother went to Queen of the Holy Rosary in Overland Park.  I went to public school.  We had to take the bus on I-35.  I was the oldest, so I had to walk the others to and from school. 
Lauren: Did you speak English when you came here?
Jose: No, no English.  Just the little we’d learned in school back in Colombia.  We didn’t know we were coming here till about a week before we got on the plane.  So we were not prepared.  But we were so young.  If someone had told us any sooner and maybe they did, it wouldn’t have been real, it wouldn’t have sunk in, you know?  We had no clue at all.
It took me about a year and a half to learn English.  At Redemptorist, we were the weird kids—it was predominantly Latino, but most of them didn’t speak Spanish that well, so they were always asking us how to say something in Spanish.  My mother was a dancer.  She taught physical education at Redemptorist.  But her English was so heavily accented, we were embarrassed.
Avenue of Murals, Kansas City, KS
Lauren: How do you feel being bilingual affected you?
Jose: It’s the sad thing about being bilingual—being embarrassed of the accent.  My mother knew it was bad.  So at home, she made us speak nothing but English.  I love English, but as a result, I’m not as good at Spanish as I should be.  Till I was 18, I hardly spoke it.  Then I got a job with La Flor de Mayo in the Westside delivering tortillas. We stopped at La Fama bakery and a worker spoke to me in Spanish and I responded in Spanish without even realizing that I’d done it.  My co-worker said, “Dude, you didn’t tell me you spoke Spanish.”  I was like, “I don’t.”  It took something like that for me to realize.  I didn’t know my English still had an accent.  From then on, I embraced it.  Now, I read a lot in Spanish.  It’s definitely affected my relationship with language.
Robert Frost said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  Now I try to read Spanish literature, then read the English translation and compare.  I try to write in Spanish.  I submitted some poetry to a journal in Madrid.  They published it, but the editor said it was an interesting mix.  They said it had an “immigrant voice,” that the expression was “simplistic.”  Again, that’s how it is with being bilingual.  The primary language becomes secondary.  It’s hard to admit you can’t do it.
When I studied at UMKC, we covered lots of authors—English, Irish, American, even some French.  But hardly any Spanish.  Then I discovered One Hundred Years of Solitude.  From there, I began to seek out Spanish writers.  I discovered how language can have so much meaning, so much nuance.  I appreciate the richness and ambiguity, the contradictions and beauty.
Lauren: Who are your favorite writers?
Jose: Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alexandre Dumas, Bolaño, Machado, Montalban, Lorca, Neruda, Whitman, Eliot, Faulkner, Kerouac.  So many.  I love myths.  The Iliad and The Odyssey were the first books the librarian gave to me here.  She was like a mother to me.  She gave me those, and The Count of Monte Cristo, lots of adventure books.  I love mysteries.  Lately, I’ve been reading Andrea Camilleri.  I love private eyes. I love Carlos Ruiz Zafon. 
I always have books in my bed.  I sleep on them.
Lauren: When did you become an artist?
Jose: I know exactly when.  I was taking classes at JCCC.  I had declared as a political science major, so most of the classes I’d taken had been geared around that.  I had about 21 credits under my belt.  Then one day, my brother said to me, “You know, you like to draw.  I’m taking a drawing class right now.  You could sit in on it.  There are nude models.”  He knew just what to say to get me in there. 
It was a Life Drawing class.  The teacher was a little suspicious but she gave me a big piece of paper and sat me on the floor to draw.  So I just did it, I just started drawing.  The teacher told me, “You’re welcome to come anytime.”
That was the turning point for me.  I can be an impulsive person, so just like that, I changed majors.  My academic advisor was so mad!  I threw out the credits I had and just started over.  Writing came naturally along with the drawing and painting.  I moved to Westport, started attending Penn Valley.  I got my associate’s, then went to UMKC. 
Then I didn’t do art for 15 years.  I got a job at a law firm.
Lauren: So how did you get back to art?
Jose: About three years before I quit the law firm, I’d gotten a studio and had been doing some creating.  My ex and I had separated, but we still saw each other.  One day, we were sitting together on the porch, drinking wine.  The law firm had sent me to North Carolina.  It was supposed to be for just a couple of weeks, but it turned into a year and a half.  I came back, then they told me they wanted me to go to Philadelphia.  I didn’t want to go to Philadelphia.  So I gave them six months’ notice and cashed in my retirement funds. 


Unberable Lightness, 2004
Lauren: What do you think poetry is?  What should it do?
Jose: For me, it definitely has a function and a purpose.  It’s very personal.  I think all art is like that, and I struggle with it sometimes.  It can be utilitarian, like a greeting card.  It can make someone feel good. 
But as the writer, if you’re in the throes of writing a love poem, in the grip of that emotion, all these other things happen.  It’s activist.  It’s responding to injustice.  I have tried to find a way to say that in a poem.  But no matter what I write, people bring their own stuff to it.  I just accept that.  I don’t dwell.  I went through a period where I romanticized poetry, that we poets are like the canary in the coal mine.  But no one values us that way.  Thinking that way makes us suffer needlessly.
Not too long ago, I heard this commercial for cigars.  They say that smoking one of their cigars creates a better moment only comparable to the birth of the first child.  That pissed me off.  Poetry combats commercialism.  Don’t try to tell me what a real moment is!  That, to me, is poetry.  Making the extraordinary ordinary, and the ordinary extraordinary.  Elevating moments.  The role of the artist is sometimes to hide, and sometimes to expose, to dig around, to find the lint in your belly button and throw it at someone. 
Lauren: Would you say your work has particular themes or motifs?
Jose: I don’t think about themes, but I know they’re there.  Relationships.  Forms of love—giving and taking.  Myths.  Society.  In my longer poems, I try to investigate things I don’t agree with and communicate my point of view—that’s my poli-sci major showing up again.
And nature.  Especially things that affect us physically: wind, birds, sounds.  For a while, I dated someone in Washington MO.  I’d take the train to go out and visit her.  I got caught up in watching the countryside from the moving train, the plains, the rivers.  Once, when I rode out to see her, there had been a flood.  It changed the topography.  It had turned the land into something new.  That was the inspiration for my poem, “The Water Moves in Circles About My Speech.”
I feel like we are so removed from the land.  We retreat from it.  My work is about the loss of nature.  It’s something we lament, but keep looking for it.  We accept our role in the world, but we mourn what we’ve lost. 
Lauren: Do you think poetry should be accessible?
Jose: I think it should be whatever the poet wants.  But don’t get upset if the reader gives up on you, or if they see more than you intended.  Some poets really try my patience!  I know it’s unpopular, but Pound drives me mad.  Some poets intrigue me.  I can’t understand them on a first read, but I keep reading.  Berryman is like that, Jorie Graham.  I’m fascinated by some stuff younger poets are doing, their wordplay, their stream-of-consciousness, the way they cut the syntax.
But you can’t like everything.  A conceptual Epic Lyryc Poem, He basically just cut and pasted rap lyrics that referenced the word Lyric or lyrical.  It makes me so tired.  It just doesn’t work for me.  It’s not lyrical just because you say it is!
But you just don’t know who your work is going to resonate with.  Working with students at Paseo High School on the Poetry Out Loud series, I met this African-American student.  She was fifteen or sixteen.  She read some Gertrude Stein.  I don’t care for Stein.  I would not have imagined Stein would appeal to a young, inner-city student.  But that poem really meant something to her regardless.  I read the poem and got into the rhythms of it in helping her with it and have read some now. You just don’t know where the art is going to get in.  When it does, it’s beautiful.  It doesn’t matter what the poet does.  Someone’s going to get it.  Someone’s going to read and go, “Damn.”
Lauren: Do you have a writing routine?
Jose: Tried that.  No.  I’m not a guy who gets up early in the morning.  But I don’t feel guilty about that.  Being an artist is hard enough.
Richard Blanco spoke to the Latino Writers Collective once and he said he finishes a book and then goes off and ruminates for six months.  I’m more like that.  Ideas don’t come formed.  I carry thoughts around for a long time.  By the time I write it down, I’ve thought about it so much, then it is formed.  I have to work on a computer, though, because I can’t read my own writing. 
Lauren: What are you working on right now?
Jose: I’m working with a printmaker.  It’s called the Broadside Project.  It will be a collaborative print that will include text. We will produce ten prints, one for the Greenlease exhibition and one for a traveling show and some of for each of us collaborators.
I’m also working on a solo project with Spartan Press—their Twelve Poets in Twelve Months series.  My deadline is May.  I’m writing poems about KC.  I’ve lived here so long, I’m so wrapped up in things going on here.  I have poems about streets, about 39th Streeet, 39th and Main, about other intersections.  18th and Vine, Independence and Vine, Southwest Boulevard. 
Lauren: What are your goals?
Jose: I’d love to read in Colombia someday, at a festival.  Everyone’s there because they want to hear poetry.  In his autobiography Neruda talks about a reading he did in Minas Gerais in a full soccer field, silence fell because all the workers were there to hear poetry speak.
In Mexico, when we finished up a mural, there was a big celebration in town to celebrate its completion.  They had flamenco dancers, local dances, and a declamador or reciter of poetry.  The declamador was a real diva.  I mean, this guy shows up in a cape.  Then he takes the stage.  Seven or eight hundred people had showed up from all around.  Rich landlords, politicians, campesinos, indigenous people.  When the declamador stood up, he had the whole stage.  The audience went silent.  He recited this piece that was obviously well-known.  The poem built and built, a poem about accepting identity.  Embracing identity after running from it, after denying it.  Fifteen minutes of reciting.  His voice grew and grew, so when he got to the end, “¡Yo soy indio!” he shouted it out. 
The people there knew the lines.  Their anticipation built during the poem.  They had tears in their eyes.  When he finished, there was this silence, then an eruption of applause.  It was so powerful. 
To live, to love, to have it speak through you.  It was one of the richest experience of my life.  Such a thing would never happen here.  I would trade everything to have that, to live life so dangerously close to that edge.

Purchase Primera Pagina at Amazon

About Jose Faus
José Faus is a native of Bogota, Colombia and longtime Kansas City resident. He received degrees in Studio Art/Painting and Creative Writing/Journalism from UMKC. He is a founding member of the Latino Writers Collective and serves on the boards of The Writers Place, Latino Writers Collective and Nuevo Eden. 
He maintains a studio practice at caridostudio in downtown Kansas City, Kansas. He has been involved in many mural works in the Kansas City area and Mexico and most recently Bolivia, where he received a cultural ambassador grant from the U.S. State Department. He is a recent recipient of Rocket Grant for the community project VOX NARRO.
His writing appears in the anthologies; Primera Pagina: Poetry From the Latino Heartland, Cuentos del Centro: Stories From the Latino Heartland and will appear in the forthcoming Working: In the Red and the Black from Helicon Nine Press, Raritan, Luces y Sombras and I-70 Review. His work has also appeared in Present Magazine. He is the 2011 winner of Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange award.

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Thanks for reading!  Please feel free to leave questions/comments below.  
If you love poetry, check out these poets: Scott Burkett, Angela M. Carter, Jeanette Powers, T. L. Washington, and Nicky Yurcaba