February 27, 2013

Working Writers Series: Paul Arrand Rodgers

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRworkingwritersseries@gmail.com.

Today’s Interview is with Paul Arrand Rodgers

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Tell us a little about yourself, Paul.

I’m a writer, blogger, and professional wrestling play-by-play announcer living in Metro Detroit. I received an MFA in poetry in 2012 and have been writing in one way or another for most of my life, though I didn’t know it was something you could get a degree in until my senior year of college. While the MFA is often looked at as a kind of formalization process—academically minded authors writing high-minded literature for a similarly educated audience—I was encouraged by my mentors and peers to go in a different direction, so the vast majority of my work is about film or wrestling, which, considering my undergraduate love affair with Virginia Woolf, is a world of difference to my formal training. I’ve been living my childhood dream of being involved in wrestling through a company in Cleveland called Absolute Intense Wrestling for over a year now, and have been writing film criticism on a number of blogs for the past five. I’ve recently had poetry accepted or published by Heavy Feather Review, JMWW and 491 Magazine, fiction in Monkeybicycle, and my criticism recognized by Roger Ebert. It’s been a fun start to the year.

Poetry and wrestling seem so very far distanced from one another, but I’ve been noticing a string of poetry and fiction and non-fiction about the art form lately. What’s your take on it?

Fans of wrestling, and this isn’t just fans of wrestling who also happen to write literature, have recently taken up the argument that wrestling is an elaborate form of performance art. It’s an instance where fans of a perceived low culture (video games and comic books, for example) have started fighting for the wider recognition of something they’re passionate about. And why not? One of the most popular podcasts in the world is pro-wrestler Colt Cabana’s “The Art of Wrestling,” Japanese and British wrestling has an undeniable artistry to it that’s more accessible than ever thanks to YouTube, and it’s been part of the American cultural lexicon longer than television or film. Regarding wrestling as art isn’t anything new—Barthes wrote an essay about its symbols, and 2013 WWE Hall of Fame inductee Mick Foley is a gifted and bestselling author—but I think it’s becoming a larger presence in literature now because writers who were fans of it growing up have matured and seen the art shed a lot of its hick theater nature. Its theatrics are broad, but wrestling is one of the most popular forms of collaborative art in the world, the sort of spectacle that draws a talented pen or two.

Do you think blogging operates the same way, that is, a low-culture form of performance art, but that has the potential, if not has reached the potential, of being a poetic form?

I don’t know that I’ve ever thought of blogging as an art form before. I’m sure that has a lot to do with how quickly that culture has grown. Ten years ago, nobody knew what a blog was. Now a popular one, like the Huffington Post, can be sold to AOL for millions of dollars. To me, blogging is a buzzword that became real through sheer force of will. I don’t think just having a blog makes you an artist, but there are so many genres within this vast, relatively new realm that the possibilities of art are endless. The blog has enabled and encouraged new voices in journalism, memoir, cartooning, and criticism—Kate Beaton’s Hark, A Vagrant! came from the internet, and Roger Ebert’s recent memoir has its roots in the often profound meditations on life and illness that he posts on his blog. I think the “low culture” rap comes from an odd place. Anybody can have one, so when a blog is profound, it often goes ignored. The amount of content is overwhelming, but things are changing rather quickly, to the point that old media is rushing to awkwardly embrace blog culture, pinning its arms to its sides in case the new, dangerous looking kid in town is bearing a knife.

You write manage and write a large amount of the content for your own pop-culture blog, Fear of a Ghost Planet. How does your writing differ between doing traditional creative work and the reviews and analysis you write for the blog?

Honestly, I’m not sure that it’s all that different. There’s a difference in personae, depending on what I’m writing for Fear of a Ghost Planet and what I’m writing about for traditional creative outlets, but the walls that stood between criticism and art were largely imaginary. I don’t think you’ll find Quentin Tarantino starting a film blog any time soon, but Roger Ebert wrote screenplays for Russ Meyer early in his career, and there are an endless number of writers who also functioned as critics. You adopt a more authoritarian tone of voice when examining somebody else’s work, but even that has been tempered by the likes of Pauline Kael and Lester Bangs, whose reviews had a level of artistry to them that often rose above their subject. In both instances—traditional creative writing and the work I produce on Fear of a Ghost Planet—I am offering up a conscious self-reflection for public scrutiny. It’s the stakes that are different. If you leave a comment on my blog to tell me that I’m an idiot for liking Prometheus, I won’t care: my only connection to the movie is that I saw it, and you’re the idiot for not agreeing with me. If you read a poem that I write and send me an e-mail telling me that I’m a sad man for experiencing genuine human connection in a barber’s chair, then you’ve cut a little deeper. Even if the poem or the short story is a mask, the connection is deeper because it’s something I’ve created—you’re attacking me, not my opinion.

(Interviewers Note: Prometheus was not a good movie).

How did you get into announcing for wrestling shows?

Well, the first thing you need to know about wrestling is that, unless you know somebody who can help get your foot in the door, it’s a scam. My try out was a $75 Kickstarter reward, and the promoters were nice enough to let me pick which match I wanted to call. Being an idiot, I chose the main event of a show called Girls Night Out 5, because one of my favorite wrestlers—Sara Del Rey, who is now a WWE trainer—was involved. They had a third announcer waiting in the wings in case I screwed up or went silent, but unlike practically 100% of fans who get a shot at announcing, I did my research and had things to talk about. They invited me back as their resident expert on women’s wrestling, and I quickly developed good chemistry with Aaron Bauer, my regular partner at the booth. Every show you’re asked to prove yourself again—wrestlers and announcers alike are one particularly bad review away from not being booked again—but that’s nothing new after two years of teaching basic composition to a room full of freshmen who sometimes openly question the purpose of the classes they’re enrolled in.

Since graduating the MFA, how has your output for creative work changed? What are challenges you’re facing once you’re out of the academy?

I’ve been out of the MFA for six months now, and I spent four of them mostly unemployed. Though you’d think the surplus of time would’ve been a boon to my post-graduate writing momentum, all you can think about when you don’t have any money is work. I was so desperate for cash that I almost became a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman, blind to the realities of my hoax interview and my hoax interviewer’s taste in Affliction sportcoats because he promised me a paycheck over the phone. So I didn’t write much beyond what I wrote for the blog, which often felt more like something I did out of obligation and not passion. So depression was my biggest challenge. With a job, obviously, I’m committing a lot of my time to something I’d rather not be doing, but that commitment is only an issue if I let it be one. The worst thing about my job is that I come home after ten hours of staring at a computer screen wanting nothing to do with my word processing program, but there are ways around that, too. Practically everything I write anymore starts out on a pad of paper, and I’m slowly rediscovering the Palmer method of cursive handwriting. The process has slowed, but that’s fine.

Where do you see yourself going, creatively, professionally, etc? What do you want to pursue?

Coming out of the MFA, my immediate thought was to keep going to school, to get a PhD and start teaching. In retrospect, that wasn’t a completely realistic career arc, and the six months I’ve been away from school have been incredibly valuable. I was in school from ages four to twenty-four, and, until this year, my only experience of a workplace not typically associated with student jobs were the times I visited to my mother’s factory. I lived an incredibly sheltered life, especially for somebody of working class origins, and working in Detroit has really put that into perspective. My ambitions are the same as they were this time last year: I want to be published, I want to teach, I want to be in school, I want a PhD. The work I put in at the office is ultimately secondary to those goals, but it has made me value the time I was given as an MFA to write, as well as the time that I find now. For her birthday, I took my sister to Nick Offerman’s American Ham stand-up show, which he presented as a series of tips on how to engage in a meaningful, happy life. One of his tips was to keep a hobby, by which he meant to practice a craft. Nick Offerman, being a man’s man, is something of a master woodcarver. Though I have a degree stating otherwise, I’m not a master of anything, and have, perhaps foolishly, chosen something that’s impossible to master as my craft. It is my hope that I will continue to grow and mature from this point forward. That will take patience and dedication. Our society tends not to value those two things, but I sit in front of a computer for ten hours a day, so at least I have time.

You can follow Paul Arrand Rodgers on twitter at @gh0stplanet or on his website,  fearofaghostplanet.com

About Alison Balaskovits

A. A. Balaskovits is a Ph.D. student in Fiction at the University of Missouri and the curator of the Literature on Lockdown series for The Missouri Review. You can follow her on twitter @aabalaskovits or at aabalaskovits.com

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