Lamar Neal Shares His Origin Story As A Poet and Novelist
This interview was conducted by phone on June 6, 2019. Some of the interview has been edited for reading clarity
After reading Lamar Neal’s We All Need Therapy, I was mesmerized by the deliciously venomous one liners in his poetry. When I learned via social media that he actually works on quite a bit of prose, I was interested to speak with him. I was curious as to how this writer who delivered devastation with single lines fit into the world of novels.
Laura DiNovis Berry (LDB): Thanks so much for making some time for me today!
Lamar Neal (LN): Thank you for asking me to do this!
LDB: So you know I follow you on Twitter. Are you actually on some prose stuff too right now? I thought I saw you working on some other stuff besides poetry.
LN: Oh yeah! So my first love was writing novels…so, I’ve been writing novels for about ten years now. I’ve only published one, but I have a bunch of other stuff I’ve already written. Currently I am working on a novel.
LDB: Oh wow!
LN: Yeah, what happens with that I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll show it to to anybody or keep it to myself. But yeah, I definitely write more than just poetry.
LDB: How did you get started in writing?
LN: Well, it just kinda happened I guess. For as long as I could remember I was creative so as a kid I always used to make T.V. shows, like, with all of my toys.
LN: These were not like ‘hey it’s me acting out a T.V. show that I know!’ It was me taking these toys and making something. So when I got a little bit older maybe thirteen or fourteen I just started writing poetry just because. Like going with these feelings I felt but didn’t comprehend like crushes and love – or what I thought was love at the time. And at that point I’d just rip them up and be like, “Alright! I’m liberated from this and I’m good.” It was very symbolic.
LDB: That’s awesome.
LN: Yeah, but as I got older I just started writing more and more. And before I started writing as much I stopped for maybe a couple years. But I would always feel as a writer, as poet and I forget where I got this quote from, maybe Stephen King, but some writer essentially was like “You can’t call yourself a writer if you’re not doing any writing.” It’s essentially would be equivalent to if I was like, “Yeah, I’m a basketball player.” And if someone asked me, “Oh when do you play?” And I go, “I haven’t played in twenty-five years.”
LDB: I’m pretty sure you’re right that that’s from Stephen King. I’m pretty sure I read that when I was in college or something and doing the same thing. I hadn’t written in awhile and I was like, “Oh no…”
LN: I took it as a personal attack! And I just never stopped writing. I was maybe nineteen and just started writing nonstop.
LDB: Good for you! So when you started writing – was it during that time you started working on some of the poems for We All Need Therapy or did that work come later?
LN: All of the poems were written in the year leading up to when I published it. So nothing in there is anything old. Before I really focused on love and crushes and stuff like that and I always rationalized it as nobody wants to hear anything else. I remember getting on like Instagram and all my shit’s like relationship stuff so I was like, “I’m gonna go with that. Nobody cares about anything else.” I talked about past relationships and I published a poetry book, like two years ago I believe? And it was all love. It touched on all different forms of love.
I remember there was a writing challenge I saw on Instagram. I was tasked with writing letters to different people so in We All Need Therapy there are poems like “To My Brother”, “To the One I Love Most” or whatever it may be. So all over those came from that challenge. So as I started writing that I was like, “You know what, I have a lot of stuff to get off my chest that doesn’t deal with love!”
LDB: Yeah, We All Need Therapy goes off in a whole different direction!
LN: I just started writing down things I have problems with, things I was feeling. I remember talking to my mom a few years back about a loved one and I suggested that maybe this loved one needs to go to therapy and my mom got really upset at that.
LDB: Oh, my mom would have too.
LN: She thought therapy meant, like, we’re crazy and if we go to therapy that the therapist and the people around us would have thought we didn’t have it all together. And like – that’s the beauty of being a human! We don’t have it all together. We are all imperfect creatures and it’s like, “Uh, we all need therapy!” So I just really wanted to talk about the things I saw problems with in my life, my family’s life and society. So those all came in the year leading up to when the book was published.
LDB: That’s really impressive. There’s a lot – and I think I mentioned this in the review – it’s a very hefty poetry book, which is one of the things I liked about it, because usually when you see poetry books they’re chapbooks or really small or tiny but you were like, “Nope! This is my collection!”
LN: For me, I try to think of things like a consumer! I like to support as many people as I can so I definitely bought poetry books from people from my time as a poet or on Instagram and they were always really small and there’s nothing wrong with that! You tell whatever story you need to tell and that’s the end of it. But there was once, I was reading a book and I didn’t look at the page count. All I know is that I paid nine dollars for this book. So it comes in the mail and I didn’t think it was my book at first because it was this tiny little envelope! I opened it up and it was a book of less than twenty pages. I was like, “I…feel cheated!”
For nine dollars I want something bigger! Going into it (We All Need Therapy), I was being strategic. I wanted to offer something of substance and wanted them (the readers) to feel when they gave their money – or their time because time is more important than money – that I was giving them as much as possible without diluting the subject matter.
LDB: I feel like you can see the novel writer in you coming out in this.
LN: Yeah, it does. It’s always like, “Here. Have as much as possible! Be merry!”
LDB: That’s a really fun approach! I like that. One of the other things I thought was really intriguing about your work was that you had such a thick book but so many of the pieces that were my favorites were maybe one to five lines max. And you were able to use them like a knife. The impact was immediate and they were amazing evocations of language and I was curious – do you find that you use really tight editing like that in your novels too?
LN: I like to think I do! I appreciate everything you said that just made my whole month of June. But I think I do. So, as a writer, well here’s a little short story. Growing up, I hated reading. I absolutely hated it. I feel like a lot of people were in that boat and it may have been that my ADHD may it a little hard for me to pay attention. So, um, when I got older and I started writing I was like, I’ve got to start working at novels and start reading novels and see how writers do this. So I thought ok, let’s go to some classic literature!
And one of the first legends in literature I stumbled upon was Ernest Hemingway. When I was reading his stories they were really tight and had straight to the point sentences. They weren’t all this flair. They were just like – here it is. I think that’s where I get it from. Somebody told me that they can see the author in my poetry because they are stories.
LDB: And to backtrack – what was the name of your poetry book that came out before?
LN: That one was entitled Charm Bracelet. If you like superhero movies, it came out the same day as Justice League. I was so excited. In there you’ll find poems from when I was seventeen all the way back to seven.
LDB: That’s awesome! When I write things, I love looking back and being either really embarrassed or going, “I can work with this!”
LN: It actually has one of my favorite poems I’ve ever written in there titled “Suburbia.” It talks about growing up middle class and praying to god that my mom didn’t pack watermelon. I grew up in this all white school. I was one of the few black students so I was who they look towards for everything that they considered black culture. And the jokes would go off if the one random black kid they hung out with was eating watermelon. I love that poem from that book so much. Now my first book, I may be embarrassed by. I haven’t read that in awhile!
LDB: When did you publish that one?
LN: My first book I published in July of 2015. That one is actually a novel.
LDB: So you have been really working!
LN: I don’t really stop. I feel that if I’m not writing something than I’m not doing anything. I’m always trying to have something in the works. I just try to keep the creativity flowing. So my first book is called “A Misc. Eden”. It’s about a kid who thought his mom was a goddess. It came to me as a dream. When I woke up, I was like – I need to write about this.
LDB: So when We All Need Therapy came out, because it does seem very personal, did you share that with your family?
LN: I did share it with my family. I gave my mom proof copy and she sees the poem “Straight to Hello Don’t Pass Go”. She says, What do you mean you goin’ straight to hell?!” I was like, ok, alright mom sorry. She made another comment a couple months back. She said couldn’t read the book. I think where the issue lies is, well in the first poem I talk about how I went to my mom and I forget what quote (from my mom) I had, but she goes, “That’s not what I said word for word!” And for me, I know that’s not what she said, but that is essentially what she told me.
And I don’t mean to say that everything happened that way word for word but that is how I perceived that moment. So she is looking at it from a very literal sense. She’s like, “I would never say anything that would hurt you.” I know she wouldn’t but it can happen that way. I don’t know if she read all of it but I know she read some of it and she was not happy.
I just hope that if my mom reads some of poems that she doesn’t think the things I went through are a reflection of her. It’s not. She did a great job at raising me, but you can’t protect your children from depression or suicide or heart break or whatever it may be. That was always my biggest fear. That my mom would read that and think she did a bad job. So I was always cautious of that but I also have to remind myself that it’s bigger than that. It’s an opportunity to tell my truth and inspire other people to tell their truth, because there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable.
LDB: That’s a great point. It was a such a pleasure to speak with you and learn about some of the workings behind the scenes!
LN: Thank you for having me!
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