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What follows is an interview that I conducted with Scott Holstad in January, 2000.
Scott, when did you start writing poetry?
In the late '80s. I had been keeping diaries for years, I had dozens of them, and they sort of migrated into poetry. I found a lot of what I was writing was poetic, so I started trying to write poetry outside of my journals. I sent a few of my poems out, and surprisingly enough, some were accepted, so that was pretty validating, in many ways.
I went on to take a poetry writing class, the only one I ever took, and the professor and I just hated each other. He came from the standard academic school of thought, that you write a certain way, and use a certain style, and follow the way things had always been done. And I really really didn't write that way.
So we didn't like each other. We actually ended up getting into a fistfight. He told me that I had to write in a certain tone or get out of his class, and I told him to shove it, and we went at it then and there. I had to go before a board in order to avoid getting kicked out of school, and I raised quite a bit of a ruckus about him, so he probably had to go before a board, too.
Suffice it to say, I take a great deal of pleasure in sending him magazines in which the poems he gave me "F's" on appear. I don't know if he reads them or not. I sent him one of my books and signed it From an Old Ghost.
What inspired when you first began to write poetry, and what inspires you now?
Deep depression. I didn't find out until the late '90s that I was manic-depressive, obsessive-compulsive, and that I have attention deficit disorder, but I was going to a very deep depression at the time, and the writing was very therapeutic, to get the stuff down on paper. It probably kept me out of the crazy house, although I had it mentioned to me a couple of times as a place I should probably visit.
Secondly, I had begun to read poems on my own, writers that you don't normally read in the anthologies, such as Ferlinghetti, Ginsburg, and later Bukowski, and they began to have a great influence on the way I looked at literature, and life in general. They really played a major part in the development of my own Muse.
I got to meet Ferlinghetti a few years ago, and that was really a big moment in my life. I was snooping around the upstairs part of Sealights bookstore in San Francisco [which Ferlinghetti owns] and I looked in an office, and there he was, sitting behind his desk. So I just told him that it was a great pleasure to meet him, and talked to him for a moment, and shook his hand. He took a picture of us shaking hands, and for the life of me I can't find it. I'd give about anything to have that picture.
At the time he wasn't writing much anymore, he was focusing on his painting. So I really just lucked out finding him there, he wasn't in his office much.
Do you ever hold public readings?
Yeah, I used to read quite a bit, and enjoyed it to a certain degree. It was fun to meet people, and fun to get some of my stuff out in public. I did a lot of reading in the early '90s, then did a lot of readings to support my book Places in '96. I did a tour of the west coast. And then I just stopped. This is going to sound superficial, but it really got to the point where I was spending more money on gas and lodging and stuff than I was getting from books sales. It wasn't worth it to drive 50 or 60 miles one way to read at a library, have a few people come to see you, and fewer buy your book. It just wasn't worth the effort. So I just stopped in '96, and I've only done three readings since then.
I used to do so many readings back in the early '90s that I would have groupies that would follow me around from place to place just to hear me read. It was really interesting, that sort of mentality. They dug my work better than I did, I think.
Your book, Places, was nominated for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. Who nominated you?
The publisher. You know, the nomination sounds fantastic, but any publisher can nominate one of its books in any given year, and this publisher only puts out about 2 dozen books a year. So it wasn't really a great honor.
Obviously, I knew I wouldn't get it. They don't give it to smaller books, smaller publishers.
Did you attend the awards?
It's not really possible to discuss your poetry without discussing your suicide attempts. How many times have you attempted suicide, and when were those times?
I attempted five times, starting at age 12, when I tried to slit my wrists. I didn't know you had to do them vertically, I tried to do them horizontally, and didn't do much damage. My parents sent me to a psychologist. I went to a series of psychologists throughout my teenage years, and was never properly diagnosed.
Well, manic-depressive illness wasn't as well known back then as it was now, but if I went to see a psychiatrist that would probably have been different. I just went to psychologists, and they always said that I was the angriest person they'd ever met, and that was all that came of it.
Then there was one time in the late 80s, once two years ago, twice about a year and a half ago, and once over Thanksgiving.
Why have you been attempting it so often over the past couple of years?
I've been undergoing a lot of changes and stresses. My doctors have been playing around with my medications, which always seems to play a role in it, I'm going through a divorce, and I just moved from LA to Tennessee. I had to take a new job that involved a $90 thousand dollar a year pay cut because the rate of pay here just doesn't match up to LA's. And whenever the doctors try to take me off the antipsychotics, I just plummet emotionally.
Why would doctors try to take you off antipsychotics?
They're doctors. Guess they have to see for themselves. My current doctor told me, after this last episode, never to let him try to take me off again.
What can you tell us about the first time? Can you tell us what prompted it?
I really don't recall that much about the first time. I don't recall the events leading up to it, I just remember being in deep despair from age eight on. Something must have triggered it at 12, some external factor, but I don't remember. I've just been in this state from age 8 on.
I'm currently on five different medications that have kept me pretty stable for the past 4 or 5 years, with three notable exceptions.
What happened with the last attempt?
This last attempt was 12 shots of Jack followed by a bottle of Xanax [related to Valium] and a bottle of Ambien [sleeping pills]. It didn't do it, I was in intensive care for a few days, then they took me to a lockdown ward at the psychiatric hospital. My whole time there was blurry, I guess because of the stuff I took, but it must not have been strong enough to do the deed.
How many times have you been in a lockdown ward?
Three times. Back in LA a couple of times. Once I tried to hit myself in the psych ward, so they took me to a ward with barbed wire, where you were chained to your gurney at night, for your own safety. It was straight out of Cukoo's Nest.
Then, another time in Cedar Sinai, I was committed there.
Because I tried to hang myself again.
When was this?
This would have been the summer of 98.
In Hush and Inside, ya... you make it clear that you don't enjoy hospitalization. Can you tell us about it?
I did find it therapeutic. It's extremely structured, and I found the structure to be very soothing. They get you up at six, you take your medication at seven, and have breakfast at 7:30. There are therapy sessions that you have to attend and I really ended up bonding with a lot of people there. There are people there going through the same things you are, and you can really relate to them a way you can't relate to other people. When I left, I actually cried. I was scared of going back to the outside world again.
Do you think you pose a threat to yourself?
No. I think about suicide every day, but I have no extreme desire to do harm to myself or anyone else, and I think I'll remain in that state until they start playing with my meds again, if they do that.
Do you write while in the hospital?
No. I read.
I don't know. I can't answer that.
How regularly do you write?
I used to write between 2 and 4 hours a day. Now it's less frequent, mostly because I'm working on learning a couple of different programming languages, and I have a rigorous evening schedule. I go to group therapy a couple of times a month. I go to individual therapy a couple of times a month. I'm also seeing a financial counselor.
I'm working on a book of literary criticism now. I'm trying to get that polished and looking good so that I can send it off to the university presses. After that I'm going to work on several memoirs. It's a hot topic these days, and publishers are taking them. Several friends of mine who are high-placed in the literary world have suggested that rather than write a novel, I should give memoirs a try. I have no idea how long it will take. I suspect it will take a while.
Tell us about your days teaching English. Did you enjoy that?
I taught at a couple of places in California. I didn't like it. What I liked about academia was research. I published a couple of scholarly papers, which are collected in this textbook I'm working on. I taught Composition and ESL to people who didn't want to be there. I didn't want to be there, they didn't want to be there, so I was just there to do some research.
It was a lot of work, it took a lot of time.
What do you feel like you learned from that time?
I learned just how horribly stupid and ignorant our younger generation is. I had graduate students who didn't understand what sentence structure was, and that was really discouraging. I taught 20 nationalities in my classes, and it was the Asian kids that were really trying and working hard. The natives were just there because they had to be, they'd rather be skating or surfing. So it was very discouraging to deal with that. All the more reason to commit myself to research. I almost went for a Ph.D., and my wife talked me out of it. She told me if I went for it, she'd leave me. So it was very disappointing to be able to take that so far and then have to stop. But in retrospect it was probably a good thing, I'd probably be bagging groceries right now if I got my Ph.D.
In your poem outta sight, outta mind you make references to buying and using drugs. Is this something you do today?
No. In fact, that was the one lie that was in the book [The Napalmed Soul]. A friend of mine does it, back in California, and I put myself in his head for that poem, for the first part of it. I talked about going down to the park to buy some crank. This park is right next to the police station, and they sell drugs there right out in the open.
People ask me if my poems are true, and 99% of them are, but that portion of that poem was part of the one percent that is not.
Did you know you were manic-depressive before you were diagnosed?
I was worsening in many was, becoming very paranoid, and starting fights with strangers in the street. You know, if people cut me off, perhaps. I was also collecting weapons, and my wife was becoming very worried. And with her encouragement and the encouragement of my regular doctor, I finally went to see a psychiatrist, who ran a number of tests and diagnosed me with manic-depressive illness, along with obsessive-compulsive disorder and ADD, neither of which I'm medicated for.
They don't seem to play a huge role in my life at the moment.
Your most recent book, The Napalmed Soul, is frequently described as "disturbing." What kind of people do you think your work attracts?
Two types, it seems. One, youngsters, teenagers who are going through difficult times themselves. They seem to relate to my stuff, and I get a lot of fan mail from people in high school, or just getting out of high school, telling me that my work really hit them. And the other set is writers. A lot of writers write to me and tell me that they're really inspired by my work or moved by it.
I have some friends who are much higher up the writing totem pole than I am, and they have written some very kind words about the book.
What advice would you give to the aspiring poets and writers who read and contribute to Unlikely Stories?
Read quite a bit. Read an awful lot. See what's being published out there, and don't emulate it necessarily but allow it to influence you. I know when I was writing without reading a lot I wrote shit.
Now, I think that someone who reads Bukowski shouldn't automatically start trying to write like him, but if that gives them a direction to move in, that's fine, that's good.
I wrote very poorly, and when I started reading a wide spectrum of stuff that gave me a better feel for what I was trying to do and could do. I still try to read a wide spectrum of stuff, stuff that I know I won't like and stuff I do like, and I'm sure that that influences me still.
What else do you do, creatively speaking, besides poetry?
I paint. I guess that would be it. I use acrylics on canvas.
What is your painting like?
Disjointed images, perhaps. Some of it may be similar to my writing in being dark and moody. I sometimes don't set out with a particular theme in mind but just let it take me, and wind up with some weird stuff.