Reading is about more than following a narrative or learning facts; it can also be a profound shared experience that culminates in a better understanding of ourselves and each other. In that spirit, welcome to the Westword Book Club, a weekly feature celebrating the books that inspire Denver artists.
Andy Sell is a Colorado native who moved to Los Angeles, where he performs standup, writes poetry and hosts the inventive podcast People We Know, which features Sell and his guests lionizing their favorite fictional characters. The prodigal Sell has returned for the holiday season, and has a slew of intriguing performances scheduled: from Too Much Fun tonight and Narrators tomorrow night at Deer Pile to Epilogue Comedy on December 28 at Mutiny! Information Cafe and Propaganda! on December 29 at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. Westword met up with Sell to discuss poetry, UFOs and meeting Ray Bradbury in an interview that was repeatedly interrupted by hug-seeking Denver comics.
Westword: So, how did you end up meeting Ray Bradbury?
Andy Sell: Through a job. I moved out to L.A. and my first couple months there, I was just doing shitty PA work. Then my friend who directed plays got me a job at a theater company in south Pasadena. She told me that they were putting on a production of Dandelion Wine, and she knew I was a huge Ray Bradbury fan, and that I should go check it out, and I did. I called up the producer, and they asked about my previous theater experience -- which I had -- and then boom! There I was. I had no idea that Ray was actually part of the production. It was his company and he came to every Saturday night performance to introduce the show.
That's awesome. Was that the first time you'd met a legit writer?
Do you know Kevin Randle, who wrote the book UFO Crash at Roswell? I used to trick or treat at his house on Halloween.
Was he a social weirdo? Because it'd be almost disappointing if he weren't.
Yeah, kind of. I don't really remember much about him. He was nice. When my mom told me who he was, I would ride my bike by his house a bunch to see if I could spot him. I always wanted to talk to him, I always wanted to go over there and ask to look over his files. I was heavy into UFO sightings and abductions and shit like that. He wrote a follow-up book called History of UFO Crashes: Documented Proof of UFO Visits to Earth, and those are like the books of authority on that subject. It was weird, because years later, when I was going to college in Santa Fe, I'd go down to Roswell all the time. I went to the UFO Museum there, but it was pretty low-rent and kitchsy. Not a lot of funding going into that place. I remember that across the street there was an anti-UFO museum run by a group of concerned church people: "There's no aliens, there's only God and Jesus." I don't think they're around anymore.
I wanted to ask about poetry because I know you write poetry. Who were your poet heroes?
Langston Hughes, I was really into him. And Claude McKay. He was another Harlem Renaissance guy who I fucking loved. Poetry -- when I started writing it, like when they first have you write it for school in third grade, I remember my first poem was about Halloween. It was a narrative poem about a witch who screwed up a potion. I was also really into Edgar Allen Poe as a kid. Definitely at an inappropriately early age. Like six or seven years old. My mom took me to the Poe house in Philly, and I don't really remember this, but my mom told me that it happened, the tour guide asked me a question because he thought I wasn't paying attention and I knew the answer right away. Then I asked him a question about one of the stories that Poe had supposedly written in that house and stumped him. Poe was probably the first poet I found on my own and got into. Then in high school, I took the same lit courses as everybody, where you're reading Emily Dickinson and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and you're trying to write Petrarchan sonnets. I remember everyone else in my class sort of blew it off, and I got super into it. It was like I had finally found a way to express myself. I had never really written poetry much before, but I really took to it. And it was Hughes and McKay that really got me into it. I liked William Carlos Williams, too.
Do you remember a particular poet who made you want to write poetry of your own?
Yeah, Wilfred Owen, who wrote "Dulce et Decorum est." He was a WWI soldier and most of his poetry was about the horrors of war. Really visceral and fatalistic stuff from a firsthand point of view. In high school, I was also heavily into socialist theory, and a byproduct of that was getting really anti-war. In high school, I was also heavily into socialist theory, and a byproduct of that was getting really anti-war and really into the redistribution of wealth and the collectivization of land ownership.
Keep reading for more from Andy Sell.
Why do you think you responded more to that type of politically-engaged poetry?
This is going to sound, whatever, because I'm a straight, white cis male from a middle class family, but I was a weird kid and got bullied extensively. So even though it wasn't systemic or racial, it was part of my life. Since then, I've been drawn to cultural touchstones that express alienation or the idea of persecution and injustice because for so much of my life I felt smaller than everyone else. I have this empathy for those movements. I also just loved the rhythmic quality of Hughes' verse. From there, I went into the Beats and those guys got me off, man. I also love jazz music -- my mom is a huge jazz fan -- so I grew up listening to jazz, and played in bands. The correlation between Beat poetry and jazz music is incredible. From there, I got into Federico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Neruda.
Lorca's another outsider who really paid for being different.
Oh, man. The Spanish Civil War is another struggle that fascinates me. Sometimes I think I should have been born in the '20s in Barcelona so that by the time shit popped off in Spain...
[At this point in the interview, Andy and I were politely interrupted by a huggy interloper and subsequently lost our train of thought. So alas, we will never know what Sell would have done after that Spanish Civil War shit popped off.]
Did you ever read Neruda's poems in Spanish? I have a decent grasp of Spanish, and I had an edition where his poem would be printed in English on the left page and Spanish on the right, and I loved trying to get it without reading the translation.
Yeah, I speak a little Spanish, too. My grandparents retired in Mexico, so we'd go visit them there, and I took Spanish classes all through school. My mom was bilingual, too, and she would teach me. Anyway, when I first read Lorca in Spanish, I really appreciated it more on an intellectual level. I liked the mythological allusions and the Quixotic references, that Spanish romanticism, but it's hard to appreciate how brilliant he was with language in a translation. There was always an emotional component missing from his work for me. I admired his work but didn't connect to it. Then when I read Neruda, it was what I'd been wanting all along. It was this really visceral, emotional connection that I have -- to Neruda, everything is about love and the qualities of feeling love, whether it's romantic love or a love of nature. I don't read a lot of contemporary poetry, but I am really into Daphne Gottlieb, who I got into in college when I was really coming into my own with writing and performing poetry. I spent a lot of time in the slam scene.
Before you ever did standup?
I gave standup a couple shots here and there over the years but didn't really stick with it until 2010, when I had already been performing poetry for like twelve or thirteen years. The capstone for me though, really, was Carl Sandberg.
Were there any novelists that were as influential to you?
Bradbury, for sure. There's a lot of novelists I love. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is probably my favorite book of all time. I discovered him around the same time I got into Wilfred Owen.
That's a great anti-war book.
Yeah, exactly. That book -- it's absurdist, there's lots of surreal humor, but to me what always stood out about Catch 22 was the anger. There's so much anger in that book, and justifiably so. I'm also a huge Don DeLillo fan.
Yeah, White Noise really cuts to the core of humanity.
So does Americana, which is his first novel. You can feel that it's his first novel when you read it, but to me it has this ethereal, dream-state quality of a Fellini film. And I know that a lot of people kind of shit on Underworld, but that book, man, it's huge! It takes forever to get through, but it's so beautiful. It's America in a book.
In addition to performing standup, Sell is currently at work on Invincibility Potion Vol. 1: Viking Standard, a collection of poems. Follow him on twitter for more updates.
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Follow Byron Graham on Twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.