PUMA PERL IN CONVERSATION WITH JANE ORMEROD
Puma Perl is a performer, producer, and a widely published poet / writer. She’s the author of two chapbooks, Belinda and Her Friends and Ruby True, and two full-length collections, Retrograde (great weather for MEDIA, 2014) and knuckle tattoos. She is the creator and curator of Puma Perl’s Pandemonium, which merges poetry with rock and roll; as Puma Perl and Friends, she performs with some of NYC’s best musicians. Puma is a recipient of a 2016 Acker Award in the category of writing, and of three New York Press Association awards (2015-2017) in recognition of her journalism. Find her fiction in the latest great weather for MEDIA anthology, Suitcase of Chrysanthemums.
Jane Ormerod: Can you tell us a little about “Little Man’s Last Good-bye” in our anthology Suitcase of Chrysannthemums?
Puma Perl: It’s a mix of poetry, fiction, as well as a recollection of my life on 10th Street. I had written a poem years ago called “A Bright Slinky Red Dress” about a woman who wears a red dress to a funeral. I had also written a “Where I’m From” poem about 10th Street summers, where most of the living took place outside because if you plugged in an a/c the whole block went out. I based the story on the vibe of those poems and on composites of people I knew on 10th Street, although the specific scenario was fictional.
JO: Have you always lived in New York City? You travel a lot—can you imagine writing and living elsewhere?
PP: I think that my roots will always be in NYC. I’ve done a lot of writing on the road. I wrote most of my first chapbook, Belinda and Her Friends, while I was traveling. Sometimes an isolated home upstate somewhere seems like a good idea but the truth is that it would probably drive me batty. The best of both worlds would be a NYC base and the ability to leave whenever I liked—a nice dream.
JO: How did you discover the poetry scene? When and why did you begin to collaborate with musicians?
PP: I discovered the poetry scene primarily through the NuYorican Poets Café when it opened on 6th Street in the 70’s. It was logistical. I lived around the corner and I had a young baby, children were welcome, and the idea of poetry was accessible to all, no matter the language, the literacy, or the level of education or writing skills. It was about community, poetry, dance, music, and passion. Both my kids grew up in the Café so poetry was never a foreign language to them. I was out of the scene for many years and started writing again and meeting some of you guys at places like the Bowery Poetry Club. I also hung out in rock and roll clubs and on Make Music NY Day I invited some of the musicians I knew to join the show I co-produced at the Bowery Poetry Club. Around the same time, other musicians started contacting me and asking if I would like to do a poem between sets. It was something I had envisioned that actually happened in a very organic way. I still work with all of the guys that were there that first time—Joff Wilson, Danny Ray, Joe Sztabnik, Jeff Ward, and with many others as well. I guess the “why” is that I love music, I love the people I work with, and there is always something new to learn, a way to fly without a net. I don’t think I ever would have started to improvise my work and gotten off the page without these collaborations, which include not only groups of individuals I put together but specific bands. Bass player and friend Cynthia Ross and New York Junk (Joe, Jeff and Gary) have given me the opportunity to open and collaborate with them not only in NYC, but all over the country and in Prague. Sometimes I feel like the luckiest poet ever.
JO: How important is autobiography to your writing?
PP: It’s a strong element in much of my work, but not all. They say every fiction writer’s first novel is an autobiography. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but I will say that my first full length collection, knuckle tattoos, definitely meets that description, while Retrograde is more about looking at the world and bringing the outside in. I think once we’ve told our stories we get down to the core of why those stories happened so the new stories are seen through a different lens. I tend to be more narrative than abstract, but you never know. That could change, too.
JO: You write poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction, perform solo and as part of a group. Is it difficult for your brain to switch genres?
PP: The only difficulty I have in switching writing genres is related to my work as a journalist. You use a totally different part of your brain, you fact check, you edit, you copy edit, etc. It’s a lot like homework, and who likes homework? I like the process of coming up with ideas and gathering the info, interviewing, attending events, but sitting down to actually write is like term paper time and when I’m under that deadline it’s hard to get my head into anything else in terms of my own writing. As far as performing, sometimes when I’m solo I automatically look to my right expecting to see Joff standing there, but there is no real difficulty in shifting to solo performances. With collaborations, different musicians have widely varied takes on things so there is a lot of adjustment in that area. With the core group who I consider Puma Perl and Friends (Joff, Danny, Walter Steding and Angello Olivieri), they paint a musical picture around me. Some musicians, like Rick Eckerle, have created specific musical arrangements with me. Other times I’m with an individual or group that sets the tone, or provides music that I need to follow and understand. I’m grateful that I still get to learn and practice new ways to do things and for the amazing friends I’ve made.
JO: Do you have a favorite book by a musician?
PP: I love Just Kids by Patti Smith although I think it bogs down a bit in the middle. I also love Punk Avenue by Philippe Marcade and my friend Jeff Ward’s novel Parasite, so probably the short answer is that I don’t have one favorite. With some people you can’t even compartmentalize them since they do so many things so brilliantly. I’m thinking of Brian Jabas Smith, an award-winning journalist who wrote one of my favorite books, “Spent Saints” and has been in a number of punk bands and has written songs with Alice Cooper. Another favorite is Tony O’Neill, formerly of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and other bands who wrote some great novels and poetry collections and is primarily a writer now, too. So, is it a writer that’s a musician or a musician that’s also a writer? And does it matter?
JO: You are reading at The Poetry Café in London on September 5th. What are you looking forward to seeing in the city? Is it your first visit?
PP: It is my first visit to London and is really just a stopover on my way to Paris so I may not see too much but I’m excited that I’m staying in Camden and can explore that area and finally read there. I’m open to suggestions!
JO: Finally, what is coming up next for Puma Perl?
PP: I am working on a new chapbook, to be published by Beyond Baroque in early 2019 and a collaborative book with 3 other female poets to be published in late 2019. The aforementioned Brian Smith will be doing my January Pandemonium at Bowery Electric in January, 2019, along with a bunch of other cool folks, so the poetry/rock and roll vision continues. And my blizzard-stricken Beyond Baroque birthday show, East/West, has been rescheduled to October 18, at Howl Happening. I’d like to do some more recording and traveling and to continue to add dimensions to my collaborations. I recently had a songwriting credit on the latest New York Junk album, and Joe Sztabnik of that band recorded a couple of my poems as a side project. I’d like to try my hand at writing some more lyrics, and would love to see more of my poems adapted and utilized in different genres.
Puma Perl's story "Little Man's Last Good-Bye" can be found in Suitcase of Chrysanthemums (great weather for MEDIA, 2018)
Check out Puma's poetry collection, Retrograde from great weather for MEDIA.