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Author Interview: Down A. Razor's Mean Streets

Michael Juliani |
January 13, 2012 | 12:39 p.m. PST

Columnist

Author A. Razor (courtesy of A. Razor)
Author A. Razor (courtesy of A. Razor)
A. Razor wasn’t born mean, but the streets of Brooklyn, San Bernardino and Hollywood where he marinated in his youth definitely were.  Raised by a book-loving mother, Razor split his life (as many writers do) between a private devotion to his art and a public devotion to a personality, characterized by all mediums of vice starting at age 10. 

A pot dealer at 11, he progressed into the sale, distribution and/or consumption of speedballs, LSD, stolen goods, prostitutes and the like, eventually finding himself drifting through homelessness and prison.  All the while, he wrote.  Eventually that’s what saved him. 

Supported by his DIY publisher Drew Blood, A. Razor has become something of an underground culture icon, a voice for those who’ve had to walk down those “mean streets.”  Blood published numerous A. Razor zines and organized countless readings and appearances for him until Blood’s death due to complications of AIDS.    

Sober and totally legit since 2004, Razor now works with the homeless, addicted and juvenile, teaching creative writing.  At the time of my first contact with him, he was in Oakland working with the homeless there.  

He also does readings, and anthologies of his work with Drew Blood’s press are forthcoming.  Much of his writing he shares online at www.razor13.blogspot.com.    

What were the nourishing and damaging aspects of your childhood?

There was a lot of love, although it was sometimes desperate in its application. I was my mother’s first child and I was born into some tumultuous circumstances. She worked hard to overcome that and to balance the situation, but it was a situation where balance was difficult to achieve. She moved me away from what she perceived as a harmful environment and attempted to amend that beginning in a series of sacrifices and compromises that I never fully understood which left a lot of unanswered questions that drove me into a lot of solitary speculation about life. It inevitably made me tougher, more resilient, while at the same time I encountered a lot of trauma from feeling so isolated and adversarial toward the world from a young age. I learned to fight other ideas from co-opting my thinking and to physically defend myself and even attack perceived threats from a very young age. 

Violence that is physical can leave scars that are apparent, as well as those that are metaphysical, so to speak. I became accustomed to violence and pursued everything with some modicum of violence as I grew into my teens. While this led me to learn a lot of experience and knowledge quickly, I may have moved into thought patterns that would take me away from childhood playfulness too early. This created pressure that I sought relief from, and I found it in creative escapes such as music, graffiti, writing, as well as drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes and marijuana around 10 years-old on. The former would develop into a therapeutic oasis, while the latter would progressively become a suicidal pursuit for a medicated disconnect.

Raymond Chandler has a line: "Down these mean streets one must go who is not himself mean."  It seems like a lot of "outlaw art" comes from this idea of sensitivity in a person who has faced violence, disrepair, addiction, crime.  How do you feel about that statement?

That was a notable line for me as a teenager who loved Chandler’s work and who was literally living it out in the area where Chandler had written much of his work. Hollywood’s dysfunctional runaway teen population were my mean streets when I first read these words. Prior to that, the streets of San Bernardino, where I first learned to sell drugs, watched people conduct the sex trade in the street and first heard the voice of the wino prophet, were the first mean streets I ventured out into.  

I was born in Brooklyn, NY into a fairly “mean street” situation that my mother rescued me from. My biological father was killed by unknown assailants just after I was born. My mother has told me she was in a very precarious position. She was alone and felt like she had to leave New York to protect me. So I have always had that feeling around me of not being “mean” by birth, but having to combat “mean” forces in my life to survive “mean” situations that I had gotten myself into. I have always thought of myself as a nice guy, sensitive even, with a proclivity for making risky decisions that ran the chance of getting me into trouble.    

I suppose I always had a sensitivity that enabled me to enjoy music, art and writing that some might have seen as a vulnerability considering what I did in my day to day life and the type of culture I was involved in. I was never that concerned with some other gangster or criminal knowing that I read and wrote poetry or wanted to do things that were creative, but the idea that I would ever be a part of a creative scene or accepted as a writer was pretty unimaginable for me. In that sense, “outlaw” can simply mean that you identify as being marginal, even excluded, from this exchange between people that have established a community built around art.

What sort of things would you consider the darkest activities of your life?  How did you make the big changes in your life?  

Got an early start in dealing drugs. At age 11 I was fronted a lid of weed by an “Uncle.” I rolled 10 joints that I sold that day for a buck apiece to make back the 10 bucks I owed for the lid. I had most of the lid leftover and I saw what a profit margin was for the first time in my life. I was hooked. I wanted to sell pot from then on. I learned a lot about growing it that year as well. I voraciously read High Times to learn as much about the marijuana trade as I could and I had some good mentors. 

By the time I was 17, I had sold hash and marijuana from all over the world. Southern California was a key trans-shipment point for world marijuana smugglers. I was proud of being an herbsman. Unfortunately for me, I was from Berdoo. Methamphetamine manufacturing was rampant there in the 70’s. Every tweaker will tell you that where they are from is the “capitol” of speed production, but I am pretty sure that if there ever was one in this world, it was Berdoo in the 70’s and 80’s. 

I got involved in transporting and distributing it which kinda undermined the prideful, wholesome feeling I had about dealing weed. I had happened into a premium LSD connection as a teenager that was another source of pride. I also slipped into the cocaine trade around Hollywood. I avoided heroin for a while, but by the 90’s I was a wanted criminal, a full blown speedball addict, involved in various aspects of fencing stolen goods, bookmaking, prostitution, illegal after hour clubs, escort agencies, strip clubs and extorting money from all types of “underground” entrepreneurs that operated in areas that I had laid a geographical claim to. 

This involvement in these activities was regretful, especially when I was in custody, as were some of the alliances and activities which I did not personally condone or believe in, but were done to promote my business agenda. In 2004 I was busted for the last time and faced a lot of strikes and time back in prison when an old associate of mine who had gotten out of the life told me that it seemed to him I had this one chance and I should take it. I was not certain I could get out and get clean and sober like he did, but I figured it had come to this point, where I saw that I could not be the “Robin Hood” type outlaw I had hoped to be when I was younger with all this collateral involvement in what is considered “organized” crime. I had to get out, if I even could get out, now or never. 

I balked at one point while I was on trial and tried to leave the country, burning up the last of my assets and ending up broken financially and in spirit. I began a transformation then that involved embracing the part of me that was not “mean” and trying to make that the focal point of who I was. I had done what I felt I had to do up to that point, getting away with so much legally, but being tortured by the results of so many of my actions mentally and spiritually. I needed a lot of help to begin healing and asking for help had never been my strong point. 

I have been clean and sober, as well as free of criminal activity, since July 20, 2004. The thing that had helped me more than anything was that I had started writing and publishing when I was younger. I did not have a lot of time or desire to cultivate a lot of relationships in the literary world, but the few that I did make were very quality and helped give me the balance I needed so that I did not become overwhelmed by my criminal activities. Since I have been in recovery from that previous life, I have made so many more relationships with writers and editors that have become a huge support for me to continue to move forward, as well as helped me give back by helping troubled youths and homeless people to use creative writing as therapy the same way I did.

Which books made the biggest impression on you early on? 

My mother had quite a collection of classics that I read as a kid. Melville, Poe, Twain, Dickens, Frost, Kipling, O. Henry. Steinbeck, Shakespeare, London, Chekov, Miller, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Browning, Stevenson and such. That got me started, I picked up more in school. I was a voracious reader. It helped with my first incarcerations and isolations later. 

My mom had also hung out in the Village in the 50’s before I was born. She picked up a lot of the beats, Black Mountain writers, Baldwin, Vidal, Plath, Nin,  W.C. Williams, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, etc. I remember Kosinski’s “The Painted Bird”, Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest” and “Cubby” Selby’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn”, which was a special book for me, as I had no memory of Brooklyn when I was a kid, and this book informed me in words of what Brooklyn was like around the time I was born.                                                                                                  

I didn’t get so much into poems, aside from Poe and Kipling being my favorites when I was around 5 and 6, until I tried to be cool to impress hip Hollywood women when I was teenager. I stumbled into “Red” Stolodosky’s Baroque Books and he gave me a copy of “HOWL.” I didn’t get it, I told him I didn’t get it, he gave me a copy of Langston Hughes’ “Collected Poems”. 

My mom had jazz records that I had listened to as a kid, and I realized after reading Hughes that there was a jazz rhythm to the cadence, which was there in “HOWL” but with a more improvisational tempo change. I was also introduced to Bukowski’s poetry in that store. “Burning In Water/Drowning In Flame” was like a roadmap to drowning sorrows and surviving the flames of Hollywood streetlife for me, as well as using the public libraries to research all the literary references that are threaded into that book and “Play the Piano Drunk…”. 

I was hooked on the form after that.  I began writing my own that I only shared with a couple of people who were becoming writers themselves. I was not trying to become a writer, necessarily, as selling dope and chasing tail were my main activities.  However, I spent most of my downtime reading and writing, building my own process. 

How did incarceration affect your life and your writing?

Reading and writing helped me get though, gave me something to do that distracted from the people that couldn’t help but cause drama, which usually ended in violence for them and anyone who allowed themselves to get sucked into it. It also kept my mind sharp, which I needed to play the Machiavellian games that go on inside institutions. I had to use my head constantly to avoid the political traps and keep my own hustle in line. 

Having the ability to read and write was a valuable tool, being able to codify things in writing, the way some poets can, turned out to be very beneficial to my survival.  I developed an ability to write not just in metaphor and simile, but also in mathematical cadences and structures that were influenced by English and Spanish as well as hybridized slang in these language forms. Writing was sometimes the only way I could perceive beauty in a place where beauty was so rare, almost non-existent.

What would you say are the biggest virtues and flaws of the United States?

The paradox of this country is amazingly beautiful and terrifying. I have traveled the world and the opportunities for community here are unrivaled, but the inability to overcome the structural prejudices to foment any sense of community that connects outside of itself to a more diverse sense of community that bonds into a sense of what this country has become has been difficult to achieve. 

There have been so many courageous movements of communities becoming more unified and empowering themselves in this country, but they all seem to butt up against that anti-integral consumerism that the world seems to be in fear and awe at us for simultaneously. It is difficult to extricate a personal integrity from this fray, because we are all consumers at some point, on some level. 

I tried for so long to live outside of the economic and political mainstream that is wrought with corruption, but I had to live in some relation to corruption in my own life, eventually. I was not successful at extricating myself, except for periods of time when I was laying low, living as a homeless squatter, living completely off the grid, no connection to any system of control until the system of control wants to use those abandoned buildings for urban renewal and gentrification. 

Then all hell breaks lose and the life you have built inside the debris of America gets swept away in clouds of tear gas and swinging batons. Then it was back to selling vice to get by and get what I needed.  An alcoholic, junky, crackhead, sexual deviant, gambling addict who is on the run from indictment and parole can need a lot to keep it going. Day to day living becomes like a dummy tax for where your life has gone. To keep “free”, or at least the illusion of being free by not being captured, you have to make and spend money constantly in ever increasing increments, the habits get bigger, the risks need to be higher, people begin to die all around you, the commerce begins to be not just in money, but lives and souls.  

This is the moral dilemma that consumerism has for those who are driven by mental illness of any sort that make referencing any boundary or integrity into the commerce of the situation impossible. Our country has the greatest possibility of freedom ever seen in humankind for so large and diverse a population, but we also have one of the most trauma and mental illness creating societies ever celebrated by itself in the history of the world. 

Fortunately, we have a lot of diverse voices that are willing to compete with the machinations of commerce above all, which has an affinity for drowning out any adverse expressions of discontent.  Even though these voices seem overwhelmed most of the time, they seem to be taking advantage of breakthroughs in technology and advances that have been made ever since the Civil Rights movement began to develop an alternative approach to community building and the prioritization of integrity over commerce in relation to human development. I am not anti-capitalist, but I do believe in people being worth more than money. 

One of the greatest virtues of this country is when that ideal is upheld, one of the greatest flaws of this country is when that virtue is subverted for personal and/or political gain, especially when capital gains are used to distort the reality of the injustice caused by this subversion and corrupt the voice of the communities that have been unjustly disadvantaged for these capital gains.

Could you talk about Drew Blood, how you originally hooked up with him and his press, and what he meant to you?

I was attracted to this woman, who was a punk rock junky artist type. She was from the San Bernardino area, but lived in Downtown LA in a loft and hung out in the underground scenes that I frequented. Her name was Kym Landry, and she was writing and going to readings at the time. 

Drew Blood had put out a chapbook of her writing on his Drew Blood Press, Ltd., which he was doing out of Riverside, CA at the time. He was living in a place called Mellow Manor, with the originators of the Spike n’ Mike Animation Festival. Spike N’ Mike would hire people for temporary jobs that paid cash and it was cool hustle to know about back then. 

So, Kym comes out with this chapbook, I get invited to the reading at this place on the UC Riverside campus called the barn. I get up and read a couple pieces, it is maybe only my third or fourth time even reading my writing. Drew tells me he had seen me at an Onyx Café reading the year before and that he liked my work. He bought me a pitcher of beer and said that it was an advance on my first chapbook. I gave him the sheaf of papers that I had with me and he told me to get him more when I could.  

That was 1984. I had been writing since 78’ or so, but not really taking the time to put it anywhere. I had published a couple of things in underground zines, but I was not trying to submit to people I did not know or make any effort at getting published. I really just wanted to get next to Kym that night and I figured having a chapbook come out on the same press she was on would help. It didn’t, but it did begin this relationship with this enigmatic figure that became a real champion of my work and became a good friend who I loved and respected. 

Drew did the press the way he wanted to, not to impress anyone or sell an image of what was cool or chic or hip. This was how he lived and the writers he engaged were writers that he read and related to and wanted to share with a like-minded audience. His press was all DIY punk rock and he was an awesome correspondent. He returned every order with a personalized letter and a hand made “catalogue” of all the D.B.P.L. products. He did compilations of writers, chapbooks of individual writers, chapbooks of his own work and a book dedicated to Joy Division front man, Ian Curtis and to his friend Darby Crash and his band The Germs. 

Drew was a real artistic contradiction in many ways. He was openly gay, but not fond of the West Hollywood disco scene. He was more inclined to the homophobic rock music scene and tended to fall for “straight” dudes that were not capable of returning any affection publically. A lot of his writing was based on this intense, unrequited love depression he lived in that was exacerbated by his struggle with being HIV+ early in the 80’s when it was a real death sentence and people were dying from it everywhere. It was in the days of ACT UP, the Meese Commission, MTV pseudo rock and the rise of “spoken word” communities popping up all over the country, as well as the rise of Mike Gunderloy’s Factsheet 5, which contributed immensely to the reach and scope of Drew Blood Press, Ltd. 

Drew was able to sell enough of my early chapbooks through the mail to garner interest in my writing enough that he would receive requests for me to come read in different places. This coincided with me being out on the run several times and I was more than happy to oblige him by making it to some bar or rock club or independent bookstore to do a reading. 

He would ship me a box of books and I would sell them at the reading and it would usually be a nice respite from the life I was living and almost always led to some new connections to people in different places that enabled me to expand my hustle a lil’ more and gave me more places to lay low and evade capture in.

Do you read more poetry or prose?

I just read, no set style or type or genre of writing. I really try to make an effort to never hinder my capacity to explore new ways in which writing has been used by another writer to get a point across, or describe a situation or experience. I don’t hold one form above another, and I don’t subscribe to any opinions of critics that do. I would never want to limit my ability to accept input from the writers themselves by attempting to audit or predispose myself to one approach over another.

What's your opinion on universities and college education (literary and otherwise)?

Well, I should say that my personal experience with “academics” has been a bit off putting. There have been exceptions to this, but for the most part I have been met with an unsupported bias that a hierarchical quality of writing is maintained by certain scholastic movements and disciplines in the American canon of literature and that one’s writing has to be “ordained” somewhat by those institutions that have deemed themselves to be arbiters of this quality. I still publish when asked, submit on occasion, but I’ll be damned if I am going to grovel for acceptance at the teat of some self-proclaimed poetic cleric’s bosom.                    

I will continue to grow as a writer, but I see no opening for me in the institutional sense of the world of literature. I don’t see the need for an MFA program’s validation of my study of written words and of my use of this knowledge in my own writing. I am quite comfortable with my writing ability and feel it is already as good as any academic master without the need for corrupting by submission to the opinions of these masters.  

I also do not workshop my writing. I use a process I have developed and I have displayed this process in recent years by making my work accessible as it goes through this process. The need for a publisher to reach others and share my work has been supplanted somewhat by the internet. Of course, this does not mean I am reaching as diverse or sizable of an audience as a published, academic writer would, but that lends itself to my personal opinion that a lot of these academics flood and block the market with whatever pleases them in place of quality because they have the control of the writing market. 

This may come off as the paranoia of a fringe dweller, but even though I am making the call from the cheap seats, it is still a call I have to make based on what I have to go on from my experience and point of view. Maybe I should just say “fuck it” and go to college finally just to see how the majority of writers live?  Who knows how this will work out, eventually?

What people in your life (writers, artists, friends, family, mentors, etc.) are you most thankful for?

I have already named many in previous answers. This is just too hard to name names and not feel like I am leaving someone out. I have been fortunate to have met so many people who have inspired me that I am grateful for. So many have been kind and supportive when I needed it most. I am even thankful for my enemies in this life, so it is hard to determine who I would be most thankful for. Kinda just gotta be thankful for the whole ball of wax at this point.

If you could organize a reading of any writers/poets dead and/or alive who would you get?

I used to edit a literary arts magazine back in the late 80’s when I lived in Minneapolis, MN. I was one of 3 editors on the first 2 issues. I was so into anarchistic tendencies as opposed to hierarchical ones that I was dubbed the anti-organizing anti-editor. We put together a few readings that we held in this Polish community bar called Mayslack’s. It was my idea of what a reading should be. Open, but with the challenge to the writers to not come up here with no bullshit or journal writing or “I” poems about what an ego you are…you could chance it, but you would get heckled off if the blood didn’t flow in the words. 

I have seen a lot of good readings. I also have read a lot books and there are a lot of writers, not just poets, per se, but writers in general, that I would want to read with or have read with and would want to again. 

People like Wanda Coleman, Buk (who only did a handful in his lifetime). Paul Beatty, Miguel Pinero, Luis Rodriguez, Dominique Lowell, S.A. Griffin, Iris Berry, Dennis and Annette Cruz, Frank Rios, Doug Knott, Rafael and Melissa Alvarado, Corrie Greathouse, Erika Schleager, Julia Vinograd, Maya Angelou, Laurel Ann Bogen, Michelle Clinton, Jennifer Blowdryer, Bucky Sinister, Danielle Willis, Michelle Tea, Amber Tamblyn, Danny Baker, Scott Wannberg, Wayne D. Parkinson, Jack Hirschman, Mike Taylor, Mj Taylor, David West, Max Hoffman, David Lerner, Mark Hartenbach, Frank Reardon, Jason Hardung, Jim Carroll, Kim Addonizio, Piri Thomas, Sandra Cisneros, Laurel Ann Bogen, Julia Vinograd, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Diamond Dave, Diana di Prima, Eli Coppola, Bob Flanagan, Rafael Carvajal, Maureen McNally, Drew Blood, David Smith, Neeli Cherkovski, George Wallace, John Macker, Todd Moore, Mike Mollet, A.K.Toney, Judy Holiday, Susan Hayden, Rick Lupert, W. Joe Hoppe, Paul “White Boy” Weinman, M. Dickel, Kathy Acker, Kathleen Wood, Vampyre Mike Cassel, Frank’s Depression, Hannah Wehr, Nick Macedo the list goes and goes…I am not so good at lists and I think more than 2 people in one reading is too distracting, for me personally, anyway.

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