In this interview, we talk with Naropa MFA grad, Renee Zepeda, about her book Boy Energy: Notes on Departure, inspiration, and wanderlust.
PT: Tell us about Boy Energy? What sparked it?
RZ: Boy Energy: Notes on Departure is my book about my travels and experiences as a first year English professor. It arose partly from being cooped up in my house in Pennsylvania in the wintertime and partly from wanderlust! Boy Energy was first inspired by one of my most energetic students. He was like a breath of fresh air whenever he walked in the room—the last time I saw him he made such a big impact on me; he rushed into the classroom in a whirlwind of energy and my first thought was: WOW, how can I create that energy myself?! I want to feel like a breath of fresh air when I walk in the room, too! Boy Energy is also partly inspired by my favorite album by Tori Amos—Boys for Pele—an album about the boys and men who brought her to her fire—people she felt passionate about—who inspired her.
PT: Reading the excerpt from Boy Energy felt like reading On the Road in that there seemed to be a lot of life behind it. Care to talk about your travels?
RZ: I spent my junior year in college in Munich in the Junior Year in Munich Program and that’s where I read Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums and Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I actually wrote a long term paper in German on postmodernism in Naked Lunch even after being disgusted by it. I didn’t know what to expect when I left for Munich, but it turned out to be one of the best years of my life. I did a lot of growing up that year and the first part of Boy Energy is inspired by my travels that year. From Munich, I traveled to Amsterdam, Nijmegan, Milan, Rome, the South of France (to see the caves in Lascaux), and Prague. All traveling was done by train, which my friends and I considered an amazing way to travel. It would be great if they had high speed trains in the US… If there were I would probably be following Jason Silva (another inspiration for Boy Energy) around to all of his talks.
PT: When did you start writing?
RZ: I remember my first diary (I was about five or six): it was a Hello Kitty diary with a little lock and key on it that my mother bought me from Hallmark. I brought it home and my first entry was in lipstick! I remember it like it was yesterday—the lipstick made the pages stick together and smeared the writing so the diary was pretty much ruined after the first entry. Before that, when I was about 3, I remember my first piece of artwork that I made at my pre-school. It was a sand-art reproduction of a swirling abstract painting in my parents’ livingroom. My teachers were so proud of me—my mom still has that little piece somewhere with my name at the bottom—Renee, Age 3 1/2.
PT: You’ve been involved in a lot of interesting projects the past few years—the PR, the TwitStat Project—care to talk about them?
RZ: I received my MFA from Naropa University and one thing I learned there was always to have a few irons in the fire, always to have some project to work on to keep oneself productive. I recently heard from a therapist that the powers that be don’t want us to be productive, which is probably why it feels like such an uphill battle to keep creating and generating new work. The PR is The Pulchritudinous Review, which in in first incarnations was a tangible magazine (the second issue has a letter-pressed cover by the poet and printer Ken Mikolowski) and has now become a virtual journal on Twitter, Tumblr, and Scribd. I think maybe in the future I will put together another tangible issue, but it’s so labor-intensive when it’s just you working on it, as you probably know, and as Robert Creeley said, don’t do it if it’s not fun, there’s enough stuff to do in life that isn’t fun, so you may as well do what you want while you can.
PT: Your tumblr is called Visual Reiki. What is Visual Reiki?
RZ: Visual Reiki is the new address for my blog on Tumblr: visualreiki.tumblr.com. Visual Reiki is what I discovered that I’ve been trying to do with my tumblelog since it’s inception in 2009—healing through art. I want people to see the words and images on my blog and be healed by them! There is so much to wade through on Tumblr that I try to pick out the gems—the stuff that soothes me, inspires me, and heals me. I think if it helps me it could help other people too. Tumblr is great for images and it’s coming along for writing as well. When I first started writing Boy Energy I posted the first chapters on VisualReiki and received great feedback.
PT: When I was a student at Goddard, I thought of Naropa as the school we had to share Selah Saterstrom with (and Bhanu Kapil, but she taught at the VT campus, and I was in Washington). How did you end up at Naropa? What was your experience like there?
I have this great memory of Selah Saterstrom at a reading at Naropa literally rolling out of her chair to leave the reading. I read her Meat and Spirit Plan and The Pink Institution while I was at the Summer Writing Program in 2008. I think it’s great that a portion of the proceeds from her books go to help incarcerated women. I might like to do something like that with Boy Energy; have a portion of the proceeds go to NAMI, the National Association for Mental Illness. There is so much stigma attached to being “mentally ill,” I spend so much of my energy fighting it day in and day out. It’s exhausting! But back to Naropa: I went there initially for the acclaimed Summer Writing Program because it was recommended to me by my mentor at The University of Michigan, Ken Mikolowski. It’s true that the SWP is like bootcamp for writers! Then I applied to Naropa’s MFA program because I wanted to study with Anne Waldman, which I did.
An Excerpt from BOY ENERGY: Notes on Departure
Boy energy. I didn’t appreciate it then. Or I didn’t notice it. Now it’s like a magnet and all the tiny pieces of metal inside of me are sliding towards it. I’m not sure what it is. It’s funny. It’s irreverent. I keep thinking about the things that my high school boyfriend used to find funny. A deliberate cut on the head gushing blood at the video store to horrify the clerk was funny. The way I put on my chapstick was funny. The way he impersonated my favorite musicians. The way you don’t cling to anything. Everything just passes in front of you and it neither shocks nor disturbs you. There’s a lot that I want to tell you—where do I begin? I hated Catcher in the Rye when I first read it. The language sounded so outmoded. Now I think there needs to be a new Catcher in the Rye from a young woman’s perspective. You make me want to write that book.
Notes on Departure (airplane writing is the best writing). Some places I have departed from: Ann Arbor, Allentown, Detroit, Munich, New York… Some places I have departed to: Boulder, Ann Arbor, Munich, Rome, Prague, the South of France, Cozumel, Florida, New Mexico, Costa Rica… Departure is anxiety-ridden, more exciting than waking up in Pennsylvania in the wintertime. Arrival is looking for the next mode of transit. Departure is buying a ticket when the money’s there and saving until it’s time to go. Arrival is watching every penny and skipping meals so you can afford the cheap pensioné in Rome where you fall in love with your college boyfriend. Departure is chaos. Arrival is sweet relief. Arrival in Munich: thank God we’re here; the plane ride was interminable. Departure from Boulder: Thievery Corporation on the car stereo and bottled water for the long desert highway of New Mexico. I am hoping to depart soon. I am hoping to arrive for a very long time.
Lascaux. I have an entire book of poetry devoted to the caves of Lascaux. I have written poems about those caves that I have never actually seen, but once intended to see. They are some of the first instances of art in the history of mankind. What else are they? Protected hot spots. National treasures. Magic graffiti?
Jersey City to Manhattan (OWS). I think you would look good in Holden Caulfield’s hat, but you weren’t wearing a hat. You were wearing a hi-tech outdoor jacket in a certain kind of blue—maybe teal, which is a combination of blue and green, like your eyes. You took my picture with all my crooked teeth agape. We were horsing around on the train. Alex was saying, “Nich-o-las! Warum bist du so lustig?” Nicholas, why are you so funny? Nicholas, why are you so far away? Nicholas, you’re the light of my life!
Prague. A train-ride through tunnels. Through forests. Arriving at night, the look of wet cobblestones in the moonlight. Mannequins in the windows. The Louvre Cafe. Cous-cous. A bookstore named after an American alien hunter. A castle. A flat. Young people who had been studying abroad for many months. Espresso spoons. A new journal. Boys your own age: do you trust them or don’t you? Trust, itself. What would have happened if I hadn’t trusted them? If I had been scared of them? The sugar aflame in the spoon above the disgusting liquid. A long trolley ride home.
Rome. I would have loved to stay in a pensioné like this, though this is probably not considered a pensioné. Ours was tiny, just big enough for two twin beds to be pushed together with a lovely flea market painting of a mare above them. I was in Rome with Nicholas and Alexandra for New Year’s Eve at the turn the century. I am filled with trepidation as I think about it, but it was romantic. Alex was trying to get the two of us together so after we came back from partying in the center of the city we all fell asleep and in the morning she was gone. Then something happened that neither Nick nor I would have predicted. I lost something or he did. I lost my innocence or he did. Or neither of us, or both of us. A dark angel came and hovered over us as we made a metaphor for love. Did we do the right thing? We hardly knew what we were doing. We knew we were alone in Rome and suddenly it was a new century and we would have to get on a train and return to our studies in Munich in a few hours. We knew that we wouldn’t be back in Rome for a very long time. Carpe Diem, carpe diem. We were together for almost three years after that. He was my best friend, and now, do I dare disturb his univers?
Amsterdam. We left Munich in the spring, took the train to Amsterdam in time for Queen’s Day, which seemed to us like a kind of Dutch Mardi Gras. We stayed at a youth hostel that smelled of pine, pine beds, pine staircase. Where did we go first? Probably not the Van Gogh Museum. We probably went to a coffee shop to stock up on Super Silver Haze and AK-47 and I don’t remember what else. It was a long time ago. We didn’t stay very long, just long enough make our purchases and get out. We went to Vondel Park and sat and were amazed by instant green birds. What were they? I once tried to find out and never did. They looked like big wild parakeets. We probably sat and smoked and maybe ate sandwiches from a vendor and maybe wrote a little. I wish I still had my journal from that time. It was unbelievably ten years ago and I was twenty-one. I hear that they’re closing the coffee shops now… It helps to have someone with you who has a good sense of direction in Amsterdam because there are endless bridges over canals and cobblestone streets that all seem to look the same. I was surprised how small the Anne Frank House was (it was actually an apartment). I wondered if it was the actual house or some kind of reproduction. How could two families have fit into a space the size of my kitchen? I remember the peeling walls of the staircase and the solemn hush of the other visitors. There must have been a gift shop because I remember a small white paper bag that probably contained postcards. Both the Anne Frank House and The Van Gogh Museum are better sober. There are long lines and crowds and the paintings will make you hungry if you let them.
Time Passes. Suddenly it’s Valentine’s Day and I am wide awake and wondering where you are, maybe you’re inside of me, right here.
Bethlehem, PA. I look like a teenager from far away. Walking my dogs with my knit hat on. I see you turn the corner and your hair is unkempt and your pants are too long. Your hair has grown long—probably too long. You look like a writer, that’s how you look. I’m thinking about last night and feeling pretty good about it. You should be proud of me, but instead you’re wrapped up in your head. “How are you?” “I’m well, how are you?” But you’re not “well.” You’re sick as fuck. You hit a wall and you lost faith. On the upside: you broke a bad habit. You stopped using a certain crutch. There is a bit of victory in your eyes. And something else. A hardness. I can see it in the line of your jaw and your gaze. You look the way you looked when I first met you. Way to go, kid.
Nicholas. Our fingertips touched during my favorite class—the class in which I taught everyone how to meditate. “My philosophy teacher talks about meditation,” you said. “He has us reading Nietzsche.” I watched your face then—so earnest and good—yearning towards knowledge like a flower towards the sun. “We need something to gel us together,” I said, directing everyone to sit in a circle in the middle of the classroom. “So I’ll give you my preamble and then we’ll meditate.” You were an effusive talker; it was a minor feat to get you to be silent for five minutes. You talked with your hands, plucking and pointing to ideas in the air. I sat in the traditional cross-legged meditation position and directed everyone to follow their breath in and out, in and out. I demonstrated the thumb to forefinger touching mudra that one can hold as one sits. The room went silent for a few minutes as we sat with our eyes closed. When I opened my eyes halfway through I realized almost everyone was sitting with smiles on their faces watching me. “Now let’s smoke the imaginary pot!” You exclaimed. “Yes, the imaginary pot.” I held the invisible bowl in my left hand and the invisible lighter in my right, then changed my mind and switched the bowl to a joint and took an imaginary hit. “Be careful—it’s strong,” I said, holding the contraband out to you, smiling. You solemnly took a hit and passed it on. “I love you!” I can hear you shouting inside my head as I write this. “I love you more than you know.” For the thousandth time I pause to marvel at you, you amazing kid who appeared in my life when I was least expecting it. How wonderful you are. You are a sun I locate with my internal compass and salute. Nicholas. Your dreams keep me company and compel me onward. Onward, Nick, you impossible miracle!