Show and Tell Gallery’s Working Artist Interview Series:  Making Art & Making a Living in Portland

It’s a tale as old as time–keeping the balance between creating art and making money is a challenge. Artists of all kinds meet this challenge—everyday wizards, who conjure art and summon money too. Whether just starting out or more established, this monthly series wants to get to know the details of the artists that craft Portland’s creative web. Each month Show and Tell Gallery will feature one local artistic voice as we inquire about the inspirations and methods that keep the art working!

Poems, stories, and interviews by Amber Ridenour (“Starlite Motel“) have been featured in Gumball Poetry, 580 Split, Quill and Parchment, Slightly West, Mirror Northwest, Lexicon Polaroid, Word RiOT (forthcoming), ALARM Magazine (forthcoming), Blown Out: Portland’s Indie Poets (Church of Poetry Press), KBOO’s “Talking Earth” program, Underside Arts’ “What Next?”, Powell’s Books “Smallpressapaloosa”, “The Someday Incubator”, and some truly squalid taverns. She has written four chapbooks in two years, attended half of an MFA writing program through a well-known university before fleeing in disgust, made a lot of interesting friends, and married the poet Chris Ridenour and started Night Bomb Press and The Night Bomb Review with him. They live in Portland, Oregon, and are working on their latest project: having a baby.

Making Art

S&TG: Do you use the word artist, poet, etc. to describe yourself? Do you feel like you don’t “deserve” to call yourself that because you’re not paid, published, etc. or famous? Have you always thought of yourself as an artist?

“Poet” has a lot of romantic, interesting, scuzzy connotations for me personally (I always think of all the great eccentric starving poets of history) but to most folks, “poet” goes over about as explaining to the table you’re waiting on about how you’re really an actor. Truthfully, the word I use most is “barista,” cuz in this society people identify you by what you primarily do for money; a lovely way of dismissing artists of all stripes, by the way. Technically, I wear a lot of hats: publisher, author, editor, poet, barista, wife. Soon I’ll be adding “mom” to the list.

But it’s my mindset that you “deserve” to call yourself by whatever it is you’re actually doing, at any given time. Are you writing a poem? OK, you’re a poet. You’re a writer of poems. Simple as that. And don’t feel less valid because you don’t get paid to do it, since (almost) nobody makes a living from just making art. If they did, you’d see a lot less teachers and postal carriers.

S&TG: And what does it mean to you to be an artist, poet, etc? And have you always thought of yourself as one? If not, when did you?

Huh, well, let me put it this way: if I stop (and there have been occasions) thinking of myself as an artist of some kind, my life loses its center. I stop making stuff. I develop weird obsessions with soft-core spirituality and come up with all of these strange ways to feel bad about who I am.

The open mics in this town are really affirming, if you are ever lost like that. I was, when I moved to Portland. Then I got galvanized. And I wandered into an open mic, where people were/are willing to accept all kind of weird things about each other because there’s the understanding that they’re all poets (again, in the sense of “one-who-makes-poems”). I don’t go as much anymore, partly because I’ve gotten better at standing on my own two feet about that kind of thing, instead of leaning on a community of people for affirmation. But when/if I feel down, I guarantee you will be seeing me around a lot more!

S&TG: How long have you been making art?

Oh, since I was little I’m sure. I think that’s the case with everybody. When I was a kid I wanted to be an artist. I didn’t really care what form it took; I just had this conviction that no matter what happened, I needed a beret and bongo drums. And shades. I musta seen some funky cartoons about Beats at some point.

S&TG: Why is your art important to you? Why do you spend time creating when you could be doing something completely different and no one else would stop you?

Honestly, boredom does it. I think I find “real life” boring as hell. You know that line in “Tangled Up In Blue”? Where Dylan sings, “some are mathematicians /some are carpenters’ wives/ don’t know how it all got started/ I don’t know what they do with their lives”? I couldn’t put it any better. I have no idea how people can just work a day job, go home, watch videos until they pass out, and that’s IT. I’d rather be dead.

S&TG: What does it feel like to create? No, seriously, what does it feel like?

Artists have been likened to tightrope walkers more than a few times. I think that’s appropriate. There’s no practical reason for it, there’s almost never a monetary incentive, but man! What a charge.

S&TG: What kind of art do you make? What excites you as an artist?

As a poet, I get really geeked out on cross-disciplines. I get inspired by listening to music, writing music, trying to get some kinda point across in words that can’t normally be said in words. That’s my obsession: translating the impossible. The Unsayable. I like free jazz because I think it comes close to getting it all down in one self-contained work of art– the rude and sublime, the melancholy and the ridiculous, order and noise. Cubism is interesting to me, for that same reason: all sides revealed at once. All times simultaneously. Which I think is how aesthetic arrest is experienced by human beings. How do you write that? I like to try.

S&TG: What’s your creative process? Do you follow a routine?

I’ll sit down in a dive with a cheap pint or a coffeeshop with really strong coffee until I get a few pages scribbled out, then I go home, tear it all apart, and rearrange it like a puzzle as I type. And I’m really, really freaky about editing on a computer screen. One word is not the same as another, in my opinion. Not with poems. Not with prose. Every syllable counts. So does every comma or blank space. Even different fonts have different moods to me. I have literally killed entire days doing stuff like deleting a word, staring at the page, putting it back, deleting it again, trying a different one, etc. Words are the one area of my life where I am a straight-up control freak.

S&TG: Are there habits or places that help you create or get you inspired?

Mississippi/ that part of North Portland. Especially in the springtime, before noon, there’s a light there that I haven’t found anywhere else; kind of aged-looking. Luminescent. Almost mother-of-pearl. It makes everything look historic and contemporary, all at once. I’ve gone nuts trying to explain it and I really can’t. If I was a painter, maybe I could paint it for you and you could see what I was talking about. I try to get up there when I can to write in it.

S&TG: What have you learned about your art that’s surprised you?

That you can do whatever you want. That no one is the last authority when it comes to poetry. It’s all subjective. There’s no rules, just theories. And everyone but everyone bows to the presses. All writers, even professors with grants and shmancy offices, are at their mercy for the long-term survival of their work. Or rather, were, until the advent of DIY publishing, blogs, and chapbooks, so even that authority ain’t final word. It’s like life, really: make it up as you go. If it works for you, it’s good enough.

S&TG: Who are your creative heroes?

Mina Loy. Michelle Tea. Patti Smith. Diane di Prima. There are lots of poets whose works I adore, but these four ladies are my creative models for trailblazing, DIY, eccentricity, guts, and dedication to their craft and unique visions.

S&TG: What are your dreams?

In my wildest dreams, I will someday be able to just work on the press and my own writing and whatever else I please and make enough money doing it to not need a day job.

S&TG: What kind of support system do you have?

My husband, my friends, and sheer divine luck.

S&TG: What’s the most important lesson that you want to share with a beginning artist about how to be creative?

Teach yourself by ear first; then, when you’re secure in your own expression, go and learn the basic building blocks. Too many people do it the other way around and get stifled before they start, and the end product is boring and stilted– or worse, nothing gets created at all. Form and meter are there to help you edit, not create. Just think of those things as poetry spell-check, not rules.

Making a living

S&TG: How do you pay your bills? Etc.

I’ve worked in food service for 10 years now. The only “practical’ skills I have are fancy napkin-folding, cappuccino-foaming, how to julienne a pepper and grab trays directly out of an oven with bare hands. Makes me wonder why I ever went to college sometimes. I don’t know if I’ve always lived in places where the local economy sucks for artsy people or if I’m just bad at marketing myself.

So: I work full-time as a barista, which is enough to pay the rent, get some food, pay the bills, and stash some if I’m lucky. If I work less than full-time, the first thing to go is my grocery budget and dentist visits. But typically I can make enough tips to pay for gas (my car gets such good mileage that it’s cheaper than riding the bus) and groceries from Trader Joe’s. And with libraries, thrift stores and eating food at work, my quality of life stays pretty high.

S&TG: How does the way you make a living right now either support or complicate making art?

It’s nice because it doesn’t promote thinking, so I can just space out and burn off energy and drink a lot of free coffee. But I’m always keenly aware that I am happiest when my hours are cut or I’m unemployed. I write, dream, doodle, read, play, walk, and discover a lot more when I work a lot less. Of course then I also have to make tough decisions, like, “which do I need more: this pack of smokes or this sandwich?”

Of course, with a kid on the way now, the answer is always the sandwich, and also to pick up as many shifts as I can because you’d better believe that doctor visits are expensive. So what do I do? Right now, I stick it out because I have to, and I scribble on the days when I don’t work, and edit stuff at night. I work in manic bursts on my days off, which I have to watch because I can easily get obsessed, which leads to getting burnt out and hiding under the covers reading comics for the next few days.

S&TG: What’s the most important lesson you want to share with an artist about how to make a living?

Unless you’re one of the rare and lucky, you will probably have to choose between money and your creative life at some point. Be prepared for it, and learn in advance to enjoy being poor. The most miserable people I know are the ones that have put their art on the backburner to pursue the “right” career/house/clothes/lifestyle etc. Some of the best and brightest folks I’ve met have gone that way. They think I’M lucky. Incidentally, so do I.

S&TG: Do you hope to make a living doing your art one day?

It’s my dream. I don’t expect it, though.

S&TG: Do you feel having to make money limits your creative life?

Yes, but what can I do? This is the world we live in. I will keep on finding a way to make it work for me.

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