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Portland Writer Kevin Sampsell

Portland Writer Kevin Sampsell

Photo by Mercy McNab

Back in 1990, Kevin Sampsell started publishing books with Future Tense, an independent small press. Along with designer Bryan Coffelt and editor Tina Morgan, they now print chapbooks for the Scout Books series, the most recent being Darkmouth Strikes Again by Jay Ponteri, Girly by May-Lan Tan, and Pity the Animal by Chelsea Hodson. They also print full-length works like Excavation by Wendy Ortiz, an intense memoir that explores the author’s illegal relationship with a teacher that started at the age of thirteen. It has already received accolades from substantial media outlets. I sat down with Kevin at Glyph, an arts-oriented cafe in the park blocks, after he finished his day working at Powell’s. We talked about many things, from the old days of literally cutting and pasting his books together, to his recently released novel This Is Between Us—a masterfully presented portrayal of real love told in a very palpable first-person narrative. Kevin has a knack for writing real life well, finding talented writers who are not afraid to delve into their most personal experiences in an often humorous and honest way.

ELEVEN: What made you start Future Tense? What was it like in Portland then?

Kevin Sampsell: I started Future Tense when I was in Spokane, and then I moved here in ‘92. It was really different back then, obviously. It was really a small scene. There were two places where poets would go hang out for open mic nights. There was also Powell’s, of course, with readings there, and the Arts and Lecture series. Sometimes someone would organize a reading at a cafe or the Clinton Street Theater. So now, and especially in the last five years, there’s a reading series every week in every corner of town. I guess it’s just due to the influx of people moving into town and the expansion of the city. I started it just because I wanted to make something of my own. I think at the time, I was familiar with zines, or small presses—it’s funny because back in the eighties and nineties they were referred to as little magazines. So I was handing stuff out to these little magazines, and was initially inspired by independent music labels. I even put out one spoken word tape. I basically started it to create my own stuff, and it was a real vanity kind of thing at first.

11: How did you first break into the scene here?

KS: Actually one of the first things I did in Portland that got people’s attention was I started this little zine called Deadstar. It started when River Phoenix died, and a lot of my friends and I were bummed out about it. So we decided to write some poems about him. We made this little one-page zine and folded it so it looked like a menu, and just handed it out around at cafes around town. Then a few months later John Candy died, and then Charles Bukowski. I don’t even think I had email back then. I would just call people up and ask, “Can you write a poem about Bukowski in a few hours?” Then I would drive around and pick everyone’s work up and glue it together in this purposefully shitty layout—it was almost collage-like. I actually ended up getting a lot of mail with that, and met a lot of people around town. I’m really glad for that period because I learned a lot about how to make and present something creative.

11: You mentioned collages. I saw that you had a showing of collages at The Waypost recently. How did you get involved in that?

KS: I started doing word collage stuff in that kind of William Burroughs cut-up way back in the nineties when I was getting into his writing. So this year I just decided to get back into it. I have this envelope full of cut out words from the newspaper. I just decided to play around with images and words. I was really inspired by the ingenuity of some of the work of contemporary collage artists right now. It’s a really accessible art that anyone can do. So I started cutting up pictures from old magazines. I’ve always been charmed and intrigued by the old images in magazines from the fifties and sixties. The way people looked, and the way photography looked, and the color of it all. . . I just kind of became obsessed with it. I started reading up on collage artists and joining all these groups on Facebook, and my friends would send me things. It’s kind of like how I was when I first started writing and publishing. It’s been kind of the same process and it’s a really exciting charge of energy for me.

11: How does the internet play a role with your small press today?

KS: We’re definitely embracing it. I don’t think the internet is making people dumb, or not wanting to buy books anymore. It’s important to Future Tense to have a Facebook page, and to sell books through our own and other websites. The internet has helped even out that field. If people are looking for a type of book or author, they’re not going to care if it’s a smaller press or a big press. If they can buy it online, the most important thing is the accessibility. Even with the tiniest micro-presses with a print run of a hundred, you can usually find it online! We are also doing e-books now, and are working on establishing an exclusively e-book section of non-printed books that should be launched soon.

11: Your first novel is a memoir called A Common Pornography. Where did that title come from?

KS: It’s a multi-sided kind of title. Part of it is the concept of pornography being this shameful sort of thing that you hide. . . and “common” in that I think it was pretty commonplace that kids hide these kinds of things. So as you get older, you find that these are really common things and there’s no reason we shouldn’t talk about it—whether it’s your own sexual awakening or the embarrassing moments of your life. So it’s kind of a tricky play on that concept of pornography being this shameful thing that you hide away, and yet it’s really common. Also people may feel that they’re exploiting themselves or their families about writing memoirs about that stuff. The word “pornography” is often talked of in terms of exploitation, so A Common Pornography was like exploiting myself and my dirty laundry, but I also hope it goes deeper than that.

11: So let’s talk more about honesty in writing. You don’t seem afraid to reveal some of the more embarrassing events from your life, where some people might shut these things out or shed a different light on them. How important is it for you as a writer to do this?

KS: Well it’s really important for a writer to do that, especially because in my day-to-day life I sometimes pretend to have a normal life when I really don’t. So for me to be able to to dig deep and reveal things that are a little uncomfortable, because sometimes it’s hard for me to present that stuff in real life to anybody. . . but when complete strangers are reading it, there’s something about that that’s freeing—like an unloading of baggage.

11: Now in your new book This Is Between Us it seems like you’re revealing some intimate details about your life, but this is fiction?

KC: Yes it’s fiction. A lot of people are confused by this because the previous book was a memoir, and I’ve had some other personal essays come out—but I wrote mostly fiction before I wrote the memoir. So this book was the first exposure to me for a lot of people, and I’m happy that there is some confusion about that. Because then I believe that I’ve succeeded on that level of achieving some sort of intimacy, and it’s feels personal. And of course when you write fiction, some of your real life seeps in.

The two main characters are unnamed in this book, and that’s probably another reason why there is an illusion of intimacy about it. When I first started writing, I didn’t realize it was going to be a novel. I was just writing these little fragmented things, and I really like using “you” and “I” because it seems so direct and it’s the language that you see in things like poetry or love songs. It’s these things that people really connect to on an emotional level. Also, when you’re writing about a relationship, it can be really dull if you just go over the surface of it reporting about what’s happening. I wanted to go deeper and reveal the narrator’s inner thoughts.  There are a lot of scenes in the book where he’s thinking about something but he’s not really communicating it to his girlfriend. It’s a “this is what people really think” kind of inner dialogue that makes it work. »

– Scott McHale