Sunday, December 30, 2018

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with jo jo lazar: a woman who brings the burlesque to her performance and art.

From the Bloc 11 Cafe: Interview with jo jo lazar: a woman who brings the burlesque to her performance and art.

Interview by Doug Holder

Usually when someone comes to meet me in the back of the Bloc 11 Cafe in Somerville they find a white-bearded, bald guy hunched over a bagel or a newspaper—contemplating the meaning of meaning or whether its chicken or meatloaf for dinner. They are cautious in their approach—calculating in their movements. This was not the case with the multi-talented Somerviile artist/performer jojo lazar. She burst into my quiet cocoon like a jovial Ethel Merman as if, “everything is coming up roses” as the song goes. And indeed lazar is a performer and that is evident the first time you meet her.

Jojo Lazar was born in Washington, DC. She received a BA in three majors from Brandeis University and received her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. She is a Boston-based performance artist/vaude-villain known as "the burlesque poetess" as well as the tenor ukulele player in the circus band, "Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys." She is the host of "salon gone wrong: evenings of poetry & delinquency," and has been creating and distributing a zine, “niblet” since 2004.

Doug Holder: Tell me how all roads eventually led you to Somerville?

jojo lazar: I became familiar with the Boston area's vibrant poetry scene when I went to summer camps at various college campuses in the area. On weekends we used to take trips to Harvard Square. So I got a good taste of the milieu. So around the tender age of 14 or 15 , I decided that I wanted to live up here. I found the area to be like a manageable New York City. My parents went to Harvard, and my sister went to Mt. Holyoke. so I was in familial grounds. When I came here to go to Brandeis I was into the burlesque scene. I was greatly influenced by Amanda Palmer. I never thought that I would still be into it in my 30s. In 2007 I attended the Somerville Arts Beat Festival. I said to myself, “ What a wonderful vibe.” My partner and I live near the Tufts campus. Our neighbors are chefs . It's great to be around people that are doing something creative. We haven't forgot our person-hood.

DH: What do you think about the gentrification of Somerville?

jjl: Well-- I see it slipping in—like Williamsburg in Brooklyn. I am not saying we are in a black hole yet-but of course it is closely watched on my radar.

DH: Do you make a living solely through your art?

jjl:Well I have taught at Lesley University and the ukulele the Passim School of Music School. But basically any money I make comes from my rock band.

DH: You were an assistant to the Pulitzer-winning poet Franz Wright at Brandeis. Tell me about that experience?

jjl: Yes—I knew Wright from before this from his readings, etc..., When I was a student, the head of the English Department hired Wright as a visiting creative writer. I was his informal TA. His workshop was very informal. I would help him run the workshop. Franz read from his father's work, whatever he had been reading, etc... He was scattered and confusing.

DH: Was he a good teacher?

jjl: It all depends what you were looking to get out of the class. He was a real genuine character with an imposing and beautiful mind. I was in love with him as an undergraduate. Many of the participants in the workshop had read his work and were in love. Basically, we came to see the Franz Wright show and hear his lectures.

DH: How was he on a one to one basis?

jl: When it came to interpersonal communications –who knows? He was never mean or negative. It was like asking a poet about your work rather than a professor. An average creative writing teacher would have comments about form, etc.... With him—who knows? Someone handed him a six page

paper that he free-wrote while having a drug experience of some kind. Wright commented to the student, “I don't know if a lot of this works, but I am so moved about what you are trying for here.” It was different.

I was in charge of keeping him focused. I was sort of the person who took care of the details—like emails, etc... so he could continue being the wild poet. When I had a one-on-one with him he sort of let me know he had no idea what to do with my work. He had read my poems in class, but I really couldn't tell what he thought of them. He said something like, “ So you write small narratives about your friends.”I was mortified... I thought he thought I was not profound. He wasn't negative or cruel; it was more like; it is, what it is. Mind you—this is over a decade ago—now I don't get dragged down by it.

DH:Tell us about the band you are a member of?

jjl: It is the Walter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys. Walter Sickert is the founder of the band-- I met the band on MYSPACE. I was sort of an opening act for them at first. I did my burlesque comedian shtick. We toured around the region—visiting coffee shops, cabarets, etc... We are considered a Steampunk band . In Somerville we played at ART BEAT, Johnny D's, the Somerville Theatre, and we always have our “Slutcracker” at The Somerville Theatre. Now I am a musician with the band as well.

DH You describe yourself as a vaudevillian. I always think of the vaudeville my late father and grandfather told me about as a kid; that were often staged at Yiddish Theaters of the day.

jjl: You know I was interviewed right out of college by the Jewish Women's Archive. They were interested about my act as the “ Burlesque Jewess.” They asked me what I think of my heritage as a Jewish comedian. And I realized I was only knew a bare minimum. So I asked a friend of the family Lawrence Epstein, author of a “ Tortured Smile...,” a book about Jewish comedy. He told me many of the old vaudevillians never made the transition from Yiddish to English so they have been forgotten. I wanted to let you know my generation is interesting preserving things like vaudeville, but more importantly physical objects that are being lost to the digital world. We accept technology—but we make tangible things.

DH; Your poetry seems to consists of found things, text and images. How would you describe your poetry?

jjl: Well it is under the tag-- found poetry—experimental poetry. I find the way into my work one way or the other. I choose a parameter to write in, be it a prompt or whatever. Whatever works—I whittle it down to a syllabic structure. I have learned to trust my subconscious.

DH: Any parting shots?

jjl: I would ask for folks to go to 
 to support our band and other artists.

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