Learning From the Letters of Two Great Artists

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June Thomas: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Chip: Lucia thought it was a miracle. Any time anyone wrote something, you know, that sort of like how I try to approach every student writing before I get into like, Hey, you know, this doesn’t make any sense. Or, you know, you have too many fragments. You know, first I’m like, This is a miracle.

Isaac Butler: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, Isaac Butler.

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June Thomas: And I’m your other host, June Thomas.

Isaac Butler: June. I believe this is the first time this year that we’ve seen each other. It’s over. Zoom. I’m looking at a blurred out image of I. It’s a living room, I think. How are you doing so far? How’s the year been?

June Thomas: Oh, it’s been good. I’m in the kind of final weeks before my first book delivery deadline. And so it’s been done. Yes, it’s been really cold. And so it’s been actually quite good to be in a place where the sensible thing is to stay in and huddle down and just be at your desk. So that’s been good. Speaking of cold, dark, but cold should places how is your trip to London?

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Isaac Butler: It was great. It was warmer in London than it was in New York because there was that like Arctic snap or whatever it’s called. And so it was in the fifties in London, and it was like seven in New York, which did not make me afraid for the future of the planet at all. Not so few things about London. The sun rises at 8 a.m. and sets at 3 p.m., so the day is very short. Yes, people drink too much and groceries are shockingly cheap. But enough about me. Let’s talk on whose voice we heard at the top of the episode.

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June Thomas: Well, Isaac, that was Chip Livingston. And he’s a poet, a writer of short fiction, a teacher and an editor.

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Isaac Butler: Oh, that’s fascinating. So why did you want to talk to Mr. Chip Livingston?

June Thomas: Well, it was something that he edited. He recently compiled a collection of letters that were exchanged between writers Lucia Berlin and Kenward Elmslie. No, not going to pretend that I had ever read those writers. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of Kenward Elmslie. But over the course of reading this book, I learned that they are interesting and important artists, and that was an opinion that was just cemented in the interview that you’re about to hear. And as someone who just really enjoys reading other people’s correspondence, I thought it would be interesting to learn more about what that work of compiling a book of letters entailed.

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June Thomas: So that was why I wanted to talk to him. But over the course of preparing for the interview, I watched several videos of him reading his work, and I learned that he’s a really great writer. Chip’s mother was Kriek, and he writes about Native people in a really interesting way. So after speaking with him, I want to spend more time with his writing.

Isaac Butler: I think we should also say before we get into the episode, because it’s discussed very briefly within it, maybe too brief within the episode to explain what is really going on. There’s a kind of true crime case surrounding Kenward Elmslie and a mysterious figure named Mr. Oz. Can you just give us the like the rundown on what the heck that is?

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June Thomas: Yeah. So as we’ll hear Kenward Elmslie, who’s one of the correspondents featured in Chip’s book, he had a lot of family money. His grandfather was Joseph Pulitzer, and he also lived to 93. He only died in June 2022, and he suffered from dementia in his final years. And as is unfortunately all too often the case, some of the people who he had hired to help him took advantage of the relationship and stole from him.

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June Thomas: One person who is not mentioned in the book because he came into Kam Woods life after the correspondents ended, stole a Warhol and a Duchamp and literally millions of dollars, and that guy was prosecuted and incarcerated and Chip had to testify at his trial. But there were other assistants. Mr. Oz is one of them who came before that person who also took advantage of Kenward in less dramatic ways. It didn’t take millions, and a couple of such incidents are mentioned in the book now for legal reasons, their names aren’t provided. Hence Mr. Oz, which is how Lucia and Elmslie referred to him in the letters. So yet it’s a brief mention, but it’s kind of I feel like a portent of something that was unfortunately going to be a big thing in in Cambridge life.

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Isaac Butler: And if you’re a Slate Plus subscriber, what’s what’s your little bonus today?

June Thomas: Well, Chip knew both Lucia and Kenward. He lived in Kenward house and he came to know many of his friends, some of whom were really preeminent American poets. And through that relationship, Chip became interested in poetry and became a poet. So I asked him about how that interest developed and what he did to further it.

Isaac Butler: Well, that sounds really great. And if you’re a Slate plus member, that little extra something, something is waiting for you at the end of this episode.

Isaac Butler: So before we get started, I just wanted to say we really love our listeners. We really love hearing from our listeners, we love corresponding with our listeners. We really love knowing what is going on in our listeners lives. So if you’ve got a creative problem that you need solving, if you’ve got a guest that you would like to hear on the show, if you’ve got your own solution to a creative problem you think our listeners should know about and that we should be discussing on this show. Please drop us a line. We’d love to hear from you. It’s working at Slate.com or 304933.

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Isaac Butler: W. 0rk. You can call and leave a voicemail. And you know, frankly, I’ve got some projects I could procrastinate on. So, you know, this is a perfect time for me to delve deep into listener correspondence of voice mails. Please send along. Now let’s listen in on June’s conversation with writer, editor and teacher Chip Livingston.

June Thomas: Chip Livingston, Thank you for joining us on working. I wanted to talk to you about your work curating and editing love. Lucia the letters of Lucia Berlin and Kenward Elmslie, which I really enjoyed. Perhaps you could begin by telling us who Lucia and Kenward were and how you came to edit a book of their correspondence.

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Chip: Thank you. June. Lucia Berlin was a fiction writer, a short story writer, almost exclusively short stories. Although she was working on a memoir at the time of her death. She was not very well known during her lifetime, but when a posthumously collected book of her stories called A Manual for Cleaning Woman was published like ten or 11 years after she died by FSG, she became an overnight sensation and, you know, a bestseller in the United States and abroad. And, you know, a lot of people were just so curious about who is this writer? She’s often called the American Chekhov, or she is referred to in the same vein as Raymond Carver. But, you know, a very important now American writer or a U.S. writer who’s held up, you know, very highly among letters in the United States.

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Chip: Kenward Elmslie, on the other hand, had a different kind of career. He was a poet, a librettist, which means he wrote the lyrics for operas. He also wrote the books and lyrics for Broadway musicals. And he had a very eclectic life, a very eclectic group of friends. He was a member of the New York School of Poets. He had a long relationship with the artist Joe Brainard, who was also a poet. So, you know, Kenward was known in opera for several of his works with Thomas Bestiary and at Rotherham. He was known on Broadway and off-Broadway for music called The Grass Harp that he wrote based on a novel by Truman Capote. But that’s, you know, sort of who they were.

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Chip: And I studied with Lucia Berlin when I was getting my master’s in fiction writing at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado. And when I was her student, she gave me a book of kind words, poetry. And she said, you know, she thought that I would, you know, resonate with some of the content and with who he was. And she often showed me his letters and his postcards. She read them to our classes because she just thought so highly of his letters as well as his poetry and his lyrics. So she had given me some of his books when I was her student.

Chip: And then several years after I had graduated, she called me up and said, What are you doing for work? And would you consider moving to New York and working as an assistant for my friend Kenward Elmslie? And I was actually looking for work and I had recently moved back to the States from the Virgin Islands and were sort of looking, Where am I going to go? And I was like, Oh, perfect. You know, maybe I can of can being assistant post assistant afford me to live in New York? And then, you know, Lucy said, Well, you know, he is the grandson of Joseph Pulitzer, and I think he has plenty of money. And also, I think the job comes with a live in apartment and his house, which it did, you know.

Chip: So I went out to New York and met Kenward and got along great with him immediately and felt comfortable and thought, you know, this is a really good place for me. And before that, you know, I had mostly exclusively written fiction and nonfiction, but then I was suddenly in this world of poets and a very particular kind of poets. So while I was living in New York with Kenward, I was not only exposed to a lot of poets and his friends, but I also started taking classes in poetry and got a second master’s degree from Brooklyn College in poetry and got a master’s degree. Yeah. And in that also that master’s degree was sort of, you know, it included a lot of the poets from Kenward Circle. And we studied, you know, writing in those kinds of styles.

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June Thomas: Something that you said, I’m actually going to jump a long way ahead to a question that I have something that I experienced as I was reading the book. Basically, it’s about the difference in their finances. As you mentioned, you know, Kenward is well-off. He has family money and it affords him time and space and assistance. Lucia is. Not. She seems actually to be really struggling sometimes. She’s living in a trailer for a chunk of the book. And, you know, I think maybe that led me to really sympathize with Lucia in a way that I didn’t with him. You know, he seemed like, oh, he’s a dilettante. She is a real writer because she was struggling. There’s so much going on there. That’s my stuff more than anything else.

June Thomas: But I’m curious if you kind of felt a need to kind of protect them both, you know, because you were close to both of them. You had reason to connect with both of them, you know, to protect Kenward from idiots like me who were just like, oh, who is this guy? You know? And she’s obviously who am I? What? You know, this is all I’ve read of both of their work. So what’s your response to idiots like me who kind of, you know, build up this back story about these people who I just know that through these letters that I’ve read.

Chip: I definitely, you know, recognize that big difference in their lives and how that big difference in the finances that they had access to affected their work. Yeah, Kenward had never had to worry about money. He didn’t have to have a day job to afford his writing at night. He could live the life he wanted, but also take very seriously his time to write and his dedication to writing as art. Mm hmm. I mean, the money was there to afford him to live. But even so, you know, he wasn’t like. That was one of my fears. When I first went up to meet him was, you know, I don’t know how rich people act. The only, you know, I’m suspicious of them.

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Chip: Right. But he was so down to earth, he didn’t have that kind of like snobbery towards people that didn’t have money. Whereas Lucilla, you know, was struggled her whole life. She, you know, she had times when she had lots of money because of her husband’s having lots of money. But she also, you know, struggled with alcoholism most of her life, which caused her to lose jobs when she had them. And she was also, you know, a single mother most of her life as well. And so she because she was always having job turnover, she never accrued money for retirement or anything like that. She only taught at the University of Colorado for six years, you know, And that was sort of like her, you know, most prestigious career, you know, in terms of a job, at least with writing.

Chip: Yeah. And associated with writing that she had in her life and, you know, six years of paying into the system in the United States doesn’t get you anything. No. And so she writes in the book, you know, she would, you know, write letters to Kenward in the book about hoping to write between, you know, semester breaks because I am also a teacher in a university MFA program. And, you know, that’s what I look forward to, that little pause between, you know, spring semester and the next fall semester. That’s when I try to get my writing done.

June Thomas: And she was also sick, right? And she she was very ill. And she took all of her energy just to get around finances.

Chip: You know, like, yeah, it took all of her energy to get around. She was dependent on an oxygen tank to breathe. You know, she had scoliosis as a child, which punctured a lung. She was also living at 9000 feet above sea level where it’s hard to breathe. And then, of course, she died ultimately of lung cancer. So, you know, breathing was a struggle for her as was paying those medical bills.

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June Thomas: Yes. Yeah.

Chip: And going back to the connection between them of money and around money, you know, Kenward had an organization called Sea Press in which he not only published writers like John Ashbery and Joe Brainard, but also provided financial assistance to poets and artists in trouble or in financial need. And I think it actually began when a poet was in medicine who had a medical need. Mm hmm. And so he, you know, largely funded that from his own money and provided financial assistance to writers who needed it. And Lucy was one of those writers. You know, I think the last five or six years of her life, she was basically, you know, had access to her health care, had access to the trailer, and then, you know, the apartment she rented in California, thanks to a grant from the press through, you know, Kenward Elmslie.

June Thomas: Yeah. So let’s get back to the letters. I’m sorry I couldn’t hold back. So one of the reasons that these are great letters to anthologies, I guess, is that they weren’t young when they met. They were already, you know, mature people. They had what they described as an instant friendship. But because they had already had long lives, they had a lot of catching up to do. And since they were very seldom actually in the same physical space, they did that by letter, which is great for us because we also get to, you know, learn all that stuff about them. It’s a very satisfying correspondence for us to read and to learn about them.

June Thomas: I’m curious, though, how it came about, you know? Yes. Lucia I had heard of, but I hadn’t heard of him. They’re not like hugely famous people. Who is this book for? Is it for people who really enjoy reading people’s letters? People who liked particular kind of literature. People who knew them, their circles?

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Chip: Well, I think that, you know, all of those potential audiences that you mentioned were audiences I considered as a reason to, you know, try to put together this book, to try to sell it, to try to publish it. For me, I think. A large impetus for doing it and who I probably was thinking of as I selected letters, because there were, you know, hundreds of letters that we didn’t include. You know, the book includes about 40% of the actual letters.

Chip: But I think I was thinking of writers, you know, I feel like writers, whether you’re fiction writers or nonfiction writers or poets or librettists or lyricists, there’s so much advice, I think, that can be found specifically about writing, about getting through periods when you were not writing about, you know, responding to criticism, often very public criticism, but also just the way writers live and the importance that writers or any kind of artists that are true artists and writers give to their art.

Chip: Mm hmm. Because they both taught me so much. I saw them, you know, the potential for their teaching in the letters as I read through their letters. You know, I wanted to share it with my writing students, like, Oh, yeah. But one time Lucy said, Lucy, I was feeling the same thing that you’re feeling. Yeah. They talk about craft. They talk about writer’s block. They talk about tricks that they’re using to get themselves to write. You know, when they’re not writing.

Chip: Yeah. So I really thought. And think a large audience for the book is people who want to be writers and, you know, just want information about what does it mean to be a writer and what kind of life might you have. You might be struggling to pay the bills every month. You know, you might be desperate to find a grant, you know, that was going to allow you to write for two weeks. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Or, you know, you might have all the money in the world, but still other, you know, hindrances to you getting to the page. Yeah. And how do we overcome that and live a life that’s dedicated to art?

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Chip: And, you know, that’s what, you know, Lucia used to tell us, you know, about Kid Ward’s letters was, you know, this is the way an artist sees the world. But both of their letters show that, you know, the way that they’re Lucy imagines a story when she sees, you know, a stranger or a strange car that she doesn’t recognize, you know, pulling slowly by the front line, you know? Yeah. And she’s going to turn that into a story. And, you know, Kenward might witness something and or overhear a dialogue and then turn that into a really sort of abstract or kind of crazy, kooky poem or, you know, song lyric.

June Thomas: Yeah.

Isaac Butler: We’ll be back with more of June’s conversation with Chip Livingston after this.

Isaac Butler: Hey, Slate listeners, Isaac Butler here. Just wanted to say if you’re enjoying this podcast, if you haven’t subscribed yet, maybe you want to click that little dig. Lee do that says subscribe. And that way you will never miss an episode if you are already subscribing. Thank you so much. If you wanted to go that little extra mile, why not leave us a good review? Or four stars or seven your meal, beans or whatever the rating system is and your podcast app of choice.

Isaac Butler: Thank you so much. And now let’s continue with June’s conversation with Chip Livingston.

June Thomas: I’m curious about the logistics of of how you made the selection. So where were the letters? How did you get access to them? How did that kind of that whole side of it transpire and where did it happen?

Chip: You know, it was a group effort for sure. I was organizing it and compiling and, you know, putting the all the letters into, you know, word documents and, you know, then combining them into a larger master file. But the letters themselves were in various places. Some of them were physically in, you know, her son’s homes in California. Mm hmm. Some of them that she wrote to Kenward were collected in, you know, Kim Ward’s home in New York. A lot of Kenward material had been sent to the University of California, San Diego, which has his archives. So many of the letters were there as well, as well as some letters were, And Lucia as archives at Harvard.

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Chip: Mm hmm. So the letters were in different places. And it was hard. It was crazy trying to figure out, you know, where they all were. But, you know, Kenward a lot of his letters he had written on the computer. And so we still had access to his computer. And so there were many of his letters to her were saved as word documents.

Chip: Wow. And the ones from her to him? Not at all. We didn’t have anything saved. We had some of them were typed and sent to him, but even the typed ones were, you know, had handwritten annotations. But most of her letters to him were handwritten. And so then her son, Jeff Berlin, was sort of handling the correspondence for the family from her end.

Chip: And Ron Padgett, the poet and biographer and best friend of Kenward, was sort of handling and he was in charge of, you know, Kenward Elmslie the state. Mm hmm. And so the executor of the literary estate. So he was handling the correspondence that Kim Ward had. Both Jeff and Ron were, you know, scanning into PDFs, just physical copies of the letters and sending them to me. And then, you know, many of them didn’t have we had parts of letters, you know, because, you know, the first pages were lost or the date wasn’t put on them or the envelope had been lost. But so much of it was actually saved and collected in both of their homes or in their archives.

Chip: And so the records were there, in fact, at Lucia’s memorial service in Boulder, Colorado. I went to that with Kenward. We flew from New York, and Lucy, his sons from California, had brought a big paper bag full of letters that Kenward had sent to Lucia and brought them to Colorado to return to Kenward in case he wanted to keep them. And also just, you know, working for Kenward while Lucia was still alive.

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Chip: Mm hmm. When he would mail her a letter, he would print it out. He would have me photocopy it. He would keep photocopies of the letters he sent to her as well. And then I would go to the post office and mail it for him as well as, you know, he would you know, when he got a delightful letter from Lucia, he would read it to me or show it to me at the breakfast table. Similar to how Lucia would show his letters to guests that visited her home, or she would bring them to class and read them to students.

June Thomas: Right. Right. And so obviously in the book, you see that they especially actually especially Lucia, is often saying to Kenward, you know, this should be published. I hope people. I would love for people to see your wonderful writing. So was your sense always that they both were very kind of conscious of that. Some people, other people would see these at some point and that they were kind of prepared for that. Do you think that even was maybe conscious in their minds as they were writing?

Chip: I don’t think either of them actually ever thought that the letters would be published. Lucy, you know, she was not that well known. And so she would have never dreamed of having the success that she ultimately has. But also that someone would be interested in her letters. Yeah. You know, like, she just. That was communicated.

June Thomas: To her Letters are so great. Yeah.

Chip: You know, she wrote as she wrote stories, you know, like, just so honestly. Yeah. And so I don’t think either of them actually paid attention to, like, this letter so. Good. It might get published one day. Right. However, you know, Kenward did include a letter or a few letters that he wrote to Lucia in a work of art that he put a review of his songs and and show lyrics and poems that were staged in a show called Lingo Land. And he actually showed himself, you know, like at his typewriter or at a stage writing a letter to Lucia. And so that was, you know, included in a work, but also just sort of like this was a review of his life. Yeah. And, you know, she was a big part of his life for that decade that they were such close friends.

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June Thomas: Yeah.

June Thomas: I’m curious, obviously, you know, as all good compilations of correspondence, do you know, you offer footnotes to help readers kind of identify, you know, the people who are being referred to again? You know, I know that you can’t provide context for every piece of, you know, for everything that might come up, But there were some kind of historical events that I sort of sometimes, though, I’m curious why you didn’t kind of go into more detail.

June Thomas: One of them was around something. You were a little bit I don’t say coy, because that’s almost negative. And I think you’re actually being very respectful of Kenward, which is about, you know, he was a rich man. He lived to be 93. You know, anybody who read his New York Times obituary would see that he was exploited by some of the people who worked with him when he was in his later years, sadly, a not altogether rare occurrence. I wondered kind of how you made your decisions, kind of how much to talk about that kind of thing. You know, almost like hard things in life, hard things that might be sort of embarrassing to him. How did you kind of handle dilemmas like that?

Chip: Well, that’s a really good question, and certainly something that I was aware of and that Lucia was aware of. You know, one of the reasons she wanted me to go work for him was because the two prior assistants had stolen credit cards or, you know, like been, you know, let go because of, you know, circumstances where they were taking advantage of his money. And so she was aware of that and knew that, you know, I would be honest and could, you know, not give a shit about money and didn’t expect it, you know, because I was I was going to be a writer like Lucia. You know, I just hope one day I would have a job teaching to pay the bills.

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Chip: Yeah. You know, And so that was certainly something that she was aware of and I was aware of in terms of the book and editing the book. I really only I sort of guess was not coy, I don’t think, but for legal reasons, you know, like we didn’t include the names of some of those assistants. There were, you know, some letters that I had or some parts of letters that I didn’t include where, you know, Kim was writing about his relationship or his, you know, friendship with C.W., who was the assistant at the beginning of the book. And because, you know, I didn’t he didn’t turn into a person that was a real big aspect of Kim was life. Yeah. I didn’t want to give so much emphasis to this person who then wasn’t going to be around for the rest of the book.

June Thomas: Yeah. Yeah.

Chip: And, you know, the really big exposure of the theft that, you know, made the news that happened after Lucia had passed away. But there were, you know, like, we talk about it, we talk about she talks about in the book, you know, my sort of jealousy or my feelings about someone they called Mr. Oz.

Chip: Yeah. Well, you know, like maybe two months after Lucia died, Mr. Oz, I got the phone call from Kenward to change the locks because, you know, Mr. Oz was no longer allowed in the house, and he wanted me to Kenward wanted me to change the locks. It was an assistant. After that, you know that Mr. Oz actually got to to work with me during the same time I was there, he was working. There’s a new person came on that worked as Kenward chauffeur initially, and he, you know, stolen Andy Warhol. He stole a marcel Duchamp. He stole $3.2 million in cash. Wow. And I was actually involved in that because I was part of the trial unit that went to trial. He was convicted, he went to jail. He was sentenced to ten years. And so. But that didn’t happen during their correspondence.

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June Thomas: Yes. Yeah.

Chip: You know, it’s an interesting.

June Thomas: Focus in some ways.

Chip: Right. So it wouldn’t be I mean, I of course, there’s more to the story, you know?

June Thomas: Yeah. Yeah.

Chip: But it’s not. That’s part of the story. Like, if I wanted to tell the story of the assistants taking advantage of Kenward and just, you know, how that might occur in anyone’s life, that would be a different book in a book after their correspondence ended. Yeah.

June Thomas: Yeah, absolutely.

June Thomas: I’m curious, Chip. You know, as you’ve mentioned, your report, you’re a nonfiction writer. It was your commitment to art that allowed you to meet Lucia, to be introduced to Kenward, to get involved in their particular world. And I’m curious how working on the book specifically, you know, you’ve mentioned how being in their circles changed you, but did working on this book have any effect on your writing, do you think?

Chip: I don’t think it has had an affect on my writing as much as it’s had on my teaching. Oh, I think that seeing Lucia, you know, and also knowing the other side of the story, you know, like as being her student, like when she writes about student sending her work, I was one of the students who, after I graduated, you know, we all wanted Lucia to read everything we wrote, but she didn’t have time to read everything we wrote. And like now, as a teacher, I understand I don’t have time to read all these wonderful things my former students are writing.

Chip: Yeah. But also, she taught me so much about, you know, honoring the act of creation or the act of the imagination. And I think that comes through so much in their letters. You know, both of them held such high honor to the act of writing. Yeah. You know, Lucy, I thought it was a miracle. Any time anyone wrote something that they took the time to write it.

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Chip: Yeah. And you know, that sort of like how I try to approach every student writing, you know, before I get into, like, hey, you know, this doesn’t make any sense or this ending, you know, isn’t satisfying or, you know, you have too many fragments. You know, first I’m like, This is a miracle. Yeah. It’s a miracle that you actually wrote something. Yeah. And, you know, in honor of that act of creation before looking at, you know, how we might make it better or what we don’t understand.

June Thomas: And I have to say, too, that one thing that really struck me as I was reading again, especially Lucy, is were of how much her writing and her clearly her inability to be dishonest, not to, you know, she didn’t disguise hard things. She didn’t take hard things for work. And it caused her endless problems in, you know, lost friendships who would be cut off from people because some of the things in her life were really hard, kind of weird things. But she couldn’t not tell the full story. And there’s something just so inspiring about that. Even just reading these letters is kind of weird to say a true artist because it suggests that other people are, you know, false artists. But but really, there’s something so remarkable about her. Inability to be dishonest about her life.

Chip: Yeah, that’s true. She is forthcoming, and I just admire that in other teachers as well and other writers when they’re talking about their process. Just, you know, like there’s just something that is so attractive or, I don’t know, even obsessing when somebody is just honest and doesn’t have that, you know, facade where I think sometimes Kenward had the facade because he was protecting himself or protecting, you know, the fact that he had a lot of money that potentially someone might like him for instead of for his actual lyrics.

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June Thomas: Yeah.

Chip: Whereas I think Loosha is just like, nobody’s going to like me anyway, so I’ll just tell the truth.

June Thomas: Yeah. You know, as I read this book, it made me want to have somebody that I had this kind of almost obsessive correspondence with. You know, the cliche at least is that letter writing is dead. When I was young, I wrote a ton of letters. I don’t write any anymore. Did it turn you into a letter writer? Were you already a letter writer? Did it make you more of a correspondent?

Chip: I was already a letter writer. I did have long over the years and years. Decades. Friendships that were primarily through the mail when I was younger. Some of that, of course, has changed now. And more of it is, you know, with WhatsApp messages or, you know, long audio messages sent over the phone now. It made me aware of the quality of like even just emails between friends, you know, like of taking the time to be thoughtful with each other. Yeah. Also, Lucy and I wrote letters as well, so I have some of the letters. You know, it’s funny too, you know, like when she was writing about Mr. Oz in the book, you know, like to Kenward like, Oh, I Chip so silly. I can’t imagine what he’s thinking or why he would be jealous. Yeah. But then she would be writing to me like, you’ve got to get rid of Mr. Oz. You know, I knew he was trouble. Yeah. So.

June Thomas: Yeah. Yeah.

Chip: So in that way, you know, she wasn’t always so, you know, honest with Kenward in terms of, you know, what she thought about some of those assistants. But, you know, there she was certainly writing that to me.

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June Thomas: Yeah.

Chip: And now, you know, like, even in one of my classes that I’ve been giving over the last couple of years, I used a lot of, you know, like I said, I used excerpts from their letters to show points regarding craft in my classes. Well, my students this year decided because of the book Love Lucia, the letters between Lucia Berlin and Kenward Elmslie that they were going to start writing each other letters. And so they like on their own, you know, I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I was really sort of happy they had done that. They put all their names in a hat and they paired up two people, you know, randomly, and they’ve been writing letters to each other now for about six months.

June Thomas: Oh, that’s amazing. I love that. Chip Livingston, Thank you so much for giving us more background on this incredibly interesting book of correspondence between two writers who are, I know, much more appreciative of their work and their thinking and their commitment to art. Thank you for being on working.

Chip: Thank you so much for having me.

Isaac Butler: Up next June. And I will talk more about what we can learn from the letters of great writers. Will also discuss overly confessional writing, figuring out your audience and when to and not to be discreet. Stick around.

Isaac Butler: June. I absolutely loved this interview. Before we talk about it. I just have to get a plug in here because a name that came up in the interview is a writer who’s very important to me, and that is the poet, artist, writer, Man about Town. Joe Brainard Listeners, if you’ve never read Joe Brainard, actually all of his work is collected in an omnibus edition, or you can just go out and buy his incredible, massively influential work. I remember today said, Do yourself a favor. Pick up some Joe Brainard. All right. Now to talk about your interview. Were you familiar with Lucia Berlin before you read this book?

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June Thomas: So I knew her name. That is to say, I knew who she was. I bet I could have answered a question about her work at a trivia night, but I had never read her.

Isaac Butler: And so are you, like a general fan of collections of letters? Is that a thing that you read for pleasure?

June Thomas: I absolutely love collections of correspondence.

Isaac Butler: So wait, so is this just because you’re like a really nosy person? Is that what it is or you?

June Thomas: That’s exactly right. You are. There’s nothing incorrect. Yes.

Isaac Butler: No shame. So am I. That’s why we’re interviewers, right?

June Thomas: That’s exactly right. I first of all, I think they’re really fun to dip into, which, you know, in these days of super short attention spans is something I appreciate. But, you know, there are a few other things. A few weeks ago, you and I did an episode of Working over Time about failure. If listeners if you haven’t heard that yet. And I believe in that episode I mentioned that artists letters are one of the few places where they talk openly about failures or stumbles.

June Thomas: You know, there’s there’s a lot of working out of things and, you know, asking for advice and receiving advice. And I find that really appealing. I think Chip is absolutely right that they’re a great place to get an unvarnished or at least least varnished look at, you know, the artist’s life.

June Thomas: And I usually buy collections that involve writers I’m particularly interested in, but it can be a great place to learn more about people that you kind of think, I don’t know if I want to read a big book by that person, but hey, I sure will read their letters because, you know, the editors or a good editor at least will do some handholding with, you know, footnotes explaining who and what they’re talking about.

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Isaac Butler: It’s really fascinating to me that you talked both about the discretion necessary to do this kind of project, some of which is legally mandated, but some of which is just being a decent person. You know, they didn’t write these letters necessarily, knowing they would be published, whatever. Yeah. And contrasting that with the kind of enormous, totalizing, perhaps problematic honesty that Lucia Berlin had, which was very beneficial to her work and very detrimental to her personal relationships. In a way, this collection’s existence and your enjoyment and the deep feelings you had about it may actually be a sign that you don’t always have to risk all your personal relationships for the sake of great art. What do you think about this kind of balance?

June Thomas: This book really did bring out like some really strong reactions in me, and that was another thing that I was very conflicted about. I admired Lucilla for the honestly super ill advised openness that she apparently was, you know, couldn’t not share. You know, I really got the sense reading these letters that she was just always on the point of oversharing and constantly trying to resist that urge. You know, for example, she got some financial support from an organization and she really, really needed the money. But she kept writing to Kenward, basically saying they wouldn’t give me the money if they knew I’d done X. And she was always on the point of telling the people about X, you know, that she’d done this shocking thing and if they knew about this shocking thing. And so she was going to tell them about this shocking thing. And Isaac there really were very shocking things.

June Thomas: So, you know, my psychoanalyzing of this person I never met tells me that she kind of had a self-destructive streak. And by admiring that, I’m maybe encouraging other people to be equally self-destructive, which the rational me doesn’t think that way at all. But you could tell from the tone of my voice in the interview that I actually did rather admire the aspect of Lucia Brolin’s personality. I’m very, very conflicted. There’s no other way for it about that. What do you think?

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Isaac Butler: I mean, I think that’s a really productive conflict to sit within and it’s not resolvable. Do you know what I mean? I mean, you can’t help but admire someone who’s totally uncompromising about some value they have, even if that value is terrible for the people around them until you actually have to deal with someone like that. That’s that’s a nice story. Yeah. I think one of the reasons why we love fictional protagonists who are like that is they allow us to experience some of that in a very safe way because no real person is is getting hurt, you know, at.

Isaac Butler: The same time, I think there’s a whole cottage industry that particularly targets young women writers, you know, in their early mid twenties to try to get them to write confessional essays that will live on the Internet forever. Yeah. And it’s really predatory. I mean, it’s almost vampiric. You know, there was a whole series that a website called xoJane famously called It Happened to me. And every time I read one of those, I was like, This is no one should have allowed you to write this. No one should have published it. The fact that you were encouraged to is kind of evil. I mean, it was really you know, I just felt like particularly young women can sometimes be told a certain kind of radical, self-destructive honesty is the way to get their work out there. And so that’s the part of it I don’t have conflicted feelings about. I think that’s wrong and bad.

Isaac Butler: And the rest of it, though, I’m just like, well, I mean, you know, there’s a reason why everyone was so into girls for so long was because the protagonist was so relentless about, you know, the things she was going after, you know, whatever it is, and those kinds of relentless, uncompromising artists, the Lucia Berlin of the world, the David Weiner ravages of the world. You know, we there’s a reason why we admire them. But I have known some people like that. And and it’s a difficult thing to be around.

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June Thomas: Yeah. I mean, this also just came up in another book that I just read, a really fantastic book called Trailed by Catherine Myles. It’s a sort of reinvestigation of a crime, the murder of two women that happened in a national park in Virginia. And it’s one of those stories where the writer becomes obsessed. You know, the investigation takes over a life in ways that are clearly not healthy, which she recognizes and acknowledges. And I just think very strongly that should not be a requirement for writing a book, writing a book or making a podcast, because it definitely happens in podcasts where you basically have to give up your whole life because you’re on the phone 24 hours a day with somebody in prison or whatever. The thing is like, that should not be a requirement for art.

June Thomas: Yeah. At the same time, I really enjoyed reading this very good writer’s account of recognizing what was going on and just really also being very driven by a sense of justice to figuring something out. So yeah, I agree with you completely about what my former colleague Laura Bennett, I believe dubbed the first person industrial complex like that is no good under any circumstances. But sometimes a little bit of extremism can be very good to read. Yeah.

Isaac Butler: I love that you asked Chip who the book was for. That is a question that I am often reluctant to ask for some reason, because it feels, I don’t know, crass or something. I mean, that’s my issue. I’m not saying you were crass, obviously, but you know, also some artists think about their audience, some artists don’t. You know, my last episode was with Allie Slagle, who writes recipes and she’s very, very conscious of who she’s writing for. Obviously, when you’re editing a collection of someone else’s writing, that’s something you have to think about. But I’m curious about your work as you hit this big book. DEADLINE You know, everyone who writes a nonfiction proposal asked to include in it who they think the audience is for the book, but beyond that paragraph that you had to write. Is this something you’re thinking about while you write it? And if so, who’s your book for?

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June Thomas: Well, before I answer that very good question, you mentioned having to explicitly talk about who you think the book’s audience will be when you write a proposal. And that’s one of the parts of creating a proposal that can seem just super annoying. I think every writer.

Isaac Butler: Well, yeah, I mean, you want to just write down like my audience is people who like good books. Thank you very much. Because I write good books.

June Thomas: Exactly. Or you just want to say, this is not my job. I am not a marketer or, you know, just get on your high horse. I certainly had that feeling. But actually, it was really, really useful just to help me get in that frame of mind. Who is this for? Who am I writing for? Like, Yeah, you need to know who your audience is to pitch the book appropriately.

June Thomas: And so my book, which just as a reminder, tells some of the stories of lesbian history through six archetypal spaces, is for anybody interested in history, specifically cultural history, social history. But I do have a couple of specific groups in mind. I’m writing this for the women who did this work, you know, who built the infrastructure that the places I’m writing about represent, who had what are honestly often crummy jobs that pay very little and mean that when you retire, if you can retire, your Social Security check will be a lot smaller than it would have been if you’d taken a different kind of job. And, you know, those people have not received the credit and attention they deserve.

June Thomas: And another group I have in mind are young, queer people who in many ways I very much sympathize with and agree with on just about everything but who I think sometimes write off older women and the work that they did in an unfortunate and unfair way. So I also want to set the record straight for those people to.

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Isaac Butler: Well, that’s all the time we have for this week’s show. If you have enjoyed what you’ve just listened to, please subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. And here for the final time this week is your Slate plus pitch. Slate Plus members get full access behind the paywall and Slate.com. You’ll get bonus segments on episodes like this one, and you get to support everything we do right here on working. Go to Slate.com slash working plus two. Sign up today.

June Thomas: Thank you so much to Chip Livingston and to our amazing producer, Cameron Drews. And please join us next week for our enhanced conversation with Chef and Dr. Eun Sung. Until then, get back to work.

June Thomas: For our Slate Plus members. You mentioned earlier that you weren’t a poet when you went to live with and worked for Kenward, but almost by being exposed to his circle, working with him, you became a poet and you studied poetry. Can you talk about what it was that kind of drew you to it that kind of led you to become a poet and what that process was like?

Chip: Yeah, Thank you for that question, June. Actually, I had begun writing poetry just prior to moving to New York and becoming his assistant when I was still in the University of Colorado grad program for fiction. The poet I, I the poet. I was the visiting writer and she dared me to take her workshop in the dramatic monologue. I was like, I don’t write poetry. I don’t even read much poetry. And she said, I dare you. And so I took the class and it was a result of her dare that I even considered writing a poem. But I was writing poems just, you know, for class assignments.

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Chip: And the poet, I would say this is publishable. And I was like, You’re crazy because you’re just like me. And you’re saying that because we’re friends. And she’s like, Send it out and see. And I so I always send it out and it would get accepted. And I would be like, Why is this happening? And how is it happening? Because my classmates have been studying poetry for years and writing poetry for years, and they know what they’re doing. And I don’t have any idea what I’m doing. I’m just following what the poet guess tells me to do.

Chip: And so I had begun writing poetry. I didn’t feel knowledgeable. I didn’t feel any sort of like confidence in what I was doing, although I knew, you know. Editors and, you know, like magazine publishers were responding well to them. Mm hmm. So I had sort of already told myself I was going to put a real, real personal, private effort into studying poetry and had begun that on my own. But then when I almost, you know, like within two or three months, I was then working for Kenward and life was poetry. You know, there was poets that, you know, lunch, there were poets at dinner. There were poetry books coming in the mail. Kenward You know, one of the first I think Christmas presents he gave me was a subscription to Ugly Duckling Press’s poetry list. So I got every poetry book that, you know, this press published.

Chip: And also, you know, I was asking Timbers questions about poetry, you know, like, how can I understand John Ashbery? And that was one of my first questions. You know, and Kenward was like, follow the syntax, follow the grammatical syntax and you’ll understand it. And it was true, you know, like I could reproach Ashbery with a much more comprehension and understanding because of Cameron advice to follow. Ashbery is sentence structure that I would get to. You know the logic. I just there was a lot of, you know, clauses in between, you know, the subject and the verb. But if you followed it closely, you could find it that it was there.

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Chip: And so it was, you know, I had started the journey towards becoming a poet, but just the exposure to it in camera to live camera would treat me as a poet. You know, he would, you know, immediately, like in the first two weeks of living there, he would have a new poem that he wrote up the day before. He would tape it up and give it to me and ask me what I thought. And then vice versa, you know, I would show him things I was working on, but he just treated me like I knew what I was doing. And I would ask if, you know, like when I did it. And he would sort of explain to me, you know, what was happening on the in the line or on the page.

Chip: And then, you know, he encouraged me to both initially take classes at the Poetry Project at St Mark’s Church in New York City. And then I started taking classes. You know, I got into the MFA program at Brooklyn College, and so that’s where I really got the education. I felt like I was lacking.

Chip: And then once I sort of started understanding the different forms and histories and movements and, you know, us and English poetry, but also French poetry and Russian poetry, then I sort of was like, Oh, I can call myself a poet. And now, you know, I’ve got three books of poetry and two books of prose. And so it’s like I, you know, like poetry is sort of, you know, it’s a is a real competition for my writing time. And I love it, you know, almost as much as I love short fiction. I still love short fiction the most, but. But I probably have time for poetry more often just because of the space and the way that semesters and work and life, you know, competes for time.

June Thomas: Yeah. All right. That really is it for this week. Thanks once again for your support and your slate plus membership.

Chip: So.