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Leah Browning - Writer in the Spotlight
"Sixty-three years of musical fragments run through my
head like a Wurlitzer jukebox gone mad."

Writer in the Spotlight

2008 - 2009

Oleh Lysiak has a journalism degree from Temple University, and is the author of three books, Filet & Release, The Chromium Kid in the American Zoo, and Barely Inside the Lines.

Oleh, you've been with us a long time, and since the beginning you've been one of our favorites. What I love most about your writing is the way your fiery vagabond spirit has been tempered by your status as old geezer. Instead of fighting the aging process, you view it with humor and grace, for example, in "Forty Years":

Have you contemplated suicide,
the shrink inquires. Yes,
thought about it for forty years.
In fact, I'm thinking about it now
but I'd rather have a ham and Swiss on rye.
Used to be a joint, or a cold beer
and a hot piece of ass did it but
I don't smoke or drink anymore and
really good sex is too much work.

and again in "Testament":

Joint prostheses clamp serious dampers
on perpendicular flights down fall line forays.
No more skiing or motorcycles, surgeons warn.
I leave velocity behind, walk mornings into afternoons
in salt air reveries where memories recur
and visions escalate on endless rollers folding
one atop another in beach benevolence soft
between an edgy coast and ocean's frightful tumult.
Fate deals me a vintage shovelhead, black, heavy, slow,
but cool beyond belief, a perfect ride for a survivor
who can get a leg up over but sets federal
and airport metal sensors off in testament
to enthusiastic living.

When I was young I did my best to not be around to be a geezer. Now I'm here, I approach my life with enthusiasm like I always have. A couple of years ago I flew to La Paz, Baja, to have dentures installed. Best looking dentist I've ever seen pulled 22 teeth in one three and a half hour session, amazing woman, strong, beautiful, a latter-day Delores del Rio. I was in the chair seriously shot up on novacaine and started laughing hysterically. She insisted I tell her why. I looked up at her with her tattooed eyebrows, hair pulled back tight, in her mask and replied: "This is an extremely exotic situation." She was good sport and didn't hurt me nearly as much as she could have. I spent two weeks in La Paz living in a hostel, eating in the streets, fishing in Bahia de los Muertos. We saved a whale. I assaulted life when I was young. Life kicked my ass. I'm glad to be here to enjoy it now. I earned my scars, love where I live, with whom I live and what I do. Not bad for an immigrant beatnik geezer. I pretty much did what I wanted and now enjoy a slower pace, appreciate what remains.

When you say life kicked your ass... mind me asking what that's about?

Pain and I are friends. It lets you know when something's wrong, complete, direct, without remorse. Pain doesn't bullshit. I've had a knee and hip replaced. My fifth lumbar sports a spur. One rotor cuff is shot. I've ingested 1800 milligrams of lithium carbonate daily for 20 years in an effort to keep bi-polarity somewhat at bay. Migraines have diminished to an acceptable level. I was convicted for smuggling. I buried my parents and several good friends along the way. Our 23-year old son was killed two years ago. My absolute best dog was shot. I should have written country lyrics but opted for poetry instead. Life kicked my ass but, after all, I did assault it. A line form a Nina Simone song leaps to mind: "If I die of a broken heart, it's nobody's fault but mine."

Sounds like you've had more than your share! You really nail that down and out on the road attitude. Were you influenced by the beats, or just born of the same sort of zeitgeist of escape, experience, and dig everything?

Kerouac's On the Road and Dharma Bums had a major influence. I read them in high school and determined a life with wife, job and mortgage was not for me. All of Henry Miller had a serious influence. I'm an enthusiast, born with it. It took me around the world. When I was released from the service in 1970 I determined to check out the exotic places in the world. I started with Anchorage, Alaska. I'm not done. What I found was distant, exotic places are no better or worse, merely different. I realize, after 63 years, that there is no escape. You are what you do. You can't get away from yourself.

I guess sometimes when we think we're running away from something, we're really running toward a new understanding of ourself...

You have to live long enough to get perspective.

Were you in Vietnam?

No. I spent my tour in Germany as public affairs officer of the US Army School, Europe.

What's the story behind your Ukrainian background, and how did coming to the US influence your writing?

My parents and I arrived at Pier 51 in NY aboard the SS General Hahn, a US troopship converted to refugee ship, on February 8, 1952. I saw the Statue of Liberty first time coming in, a six-year old. My family is from Lviv, Halychyna, Ukraine. My mother, Maria Magdalena Lysiak, nee Laskowych, sang and acted at the opera house in Lviv. Her first job in America was rolling panatellas for Dutch Masters. My father was a sixth generation magistrate. My parents were active in Ukrainian immigrant theater. We toured Ukrainian communities on the East Coast. One of my fondest memories is standing in the wings as my mother downs a shot of blackberry brandy, strides onto the stage, acknowledges the pianist and, resplendent in her performing gown turns to the audience. The woman had brass balls. My father was an honored Ukrainian author, journalist and public speaker. I turned out to be a wild one, a black sheep. The Great American Highway got hold of me and never let go. Sex, drugs and rock'n'roll influenced my writing. Before my father died he told me I'm not normal. I took it as a compliment.

Another poem you sent revealed to me for the first time the soft underbelly of Oleh Lysiak... "Deliriously Curly," which we've included in this winter issue. True story?

True story, difficult to write, more difficult to deal with.

Years ago I met a grief counselor who had just written a book about dealing with the death of a loved one. As the owner of an aging dog I asked if there was anything in there about losing a dog, and he said no, that was such an intense grief that when people asked him about it, he could never offer much help. I don't know, maybe it's that unconditional love you get from them and no one else... anyway, your dog loving self comes through again in "For a Treat":

Lily the 12-year old yellow lab does her little
concentric circles ass down dance as we dawn
walk the pond daily. She sniffs, pees, shuffles,
shits, drinks, swims, shakes and munches grass.
Back to the house uphill she lags at the last.
All her life Lily's enthusiasm followed her nose.
Now 84-dog-year-old legs don't keep up. I wait
on the bench under the overhang. She wags all over
for her ear and ass scratch reward while she works me
for a treat.

I may be a dog who completed his karmic cycle and is relegated to humanity for the next go. Lily works me because I let her. I work Lily because she lets me. It's love. She's been with us since she was seven weeks old. We take our daily daybreak walk to the pond together. Lily follows her nose. I follow my enthusiasm.

What I admire about your rhythm is the way you often break up a sentence in the middle, instead of starting a new sentence on a new line. For instance,

Now 84-dog-year-old legs don't keep up. I wait
on the bench under the overhang. She wags all over
for her ear and ass scratch reward while she works me
for a treat.

as opposed to:

Now 84-dog-year-old legs don't keep up.
I wait on the bench under the overhang.
She wags all over for her ear and ass scratch reward
while she works me for a treat.

Your way is so much more... there's a sense of such freedom there; to me, it's almost rebellious.

I've always loved jazz. Syncopation in phrasing is at the heart of the rhythm in my work. It's more interesting to break a line up, leave it in mid-air and comprehension, and complete the image in the following line, building a platform to repeat the rhythm, like a sax player improvising a hot riff. I'm a reporter, a storyteller. The lead is paramount, hooks the reader. I tell the story in a continuing lead, in bursts, with rhythm, transposing sounds, establishing groundwork. More than 40 years ago I wrote "I write my verses be and then I let them mean, is it insanity for me to read my own words over?" It was rebop then. It's rewrite now. Once I have an idea, I put it down in fragments, phrases, sentences, until I have something to work with. Then I rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Then I rewrite some more. I polish until it gleams for me.

I was going to ask if you are a compulsive rewriter... usually I can spot when a line has been worked and worked and worked... nothing about your writing hits me that way. Getting back to the beats... they were very anti-rewrite, as I'm sure you know. Kerouac had no interest in making changes to On the Road.

The beats were then and I love what they did. I'm here and now, doing my own thing. I work at my writing. In large way it defines who I am. It's not that I want to do it, I have to do it. You are what you do. I'm not a joiner. I never took advice because I wanted to be certain about what I know. I have paid the price for that. I'm compulsive in that when I can't stand to think about what's in the cooker any more, write it down and have at it. I often write while I'm driving. Sixty-three years of musical fragments run through my head like a Wurlitzer jukebox gone mad. I don't play tapes or cd's, I listen to my truck's diesel, an internal combustion symphony, think about stuff without interruption and compose my own. Sometimes I sing.

Tell us about your three books.

Barely Inside The Lines is a novel about smuggling killer one-toke Thai pot in the 80s. The research on this book took years and had serious consequences.

Care to elaborate?

I was a kid when I read Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. I knew I was going to be an adventurer. I also knew I was going to write. I just knew it early on. I wanted to write one killer adventure story. I'm not good at make-believe, fiction, bullshit, so I had to live it to write about it. The opportunity presented itself over tequila, cocaine and a phone call at a friend's house in Telluride, CO. I did some outrageous shit, challenged the navies and law enforcement agencies of the Pacific Rim, lived in five-star hotels, ran with high-dollar hookers, lived a life where cash and the edge are a substitute for reason. When all inevitably crashed, I was arrested by US Marshals and convicted of using a telephone in the commission of a felony. When I was done with the feds, I knew I had my story, quit my job and wrote 8-10 hours a day for four months. It's thinly-disguised autobiography. There's nobody innocent left to protect. Read the book. It's a good yarn, snappy.

Filet & Release is a non-fiction collection of columns I wrote for The Norwood Post in San Miguel County, CO, about fishing, working and adventuring around the world.

The Chromium Kid In the American Zoo is a collection of my poetry

Where can we buy copies?

You can find my books on line thorough Amazon, or a wealth of other book hustling sites. Search my name on Google. If you're on Whidbey Island in Washington State, The Moonraker bookstore carries them, as does Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah.

Anything in the works right now?

I'm working on Scars In Progress, a collection of poetry. Also, a series of essays about things I love, things that concern me, is percolating in the cooker. I've got at least one more book in me.

"Scars in Progress" was one of the first poems by you that appeared in our magazine... might as well stick it here, since I loved it then and still do:

Vicodin and coffee take the edge off
scars in progress. Post crash recall
takes me to the edge of no return again.
Chubby cute ambulance tech slips
a back road IV in my arm, siren on.
ER doctor rode his Norton to a
$500 speeding ticket and quit.
He crams a shunt into my lung
to keep it from collapsing any more,
stitches my elbow, congratulates me
for wearing good protective gear.
Where do I find gear that protects me
from myself? The Demerol kicks in.
No more philosophy. Iím in the zone.

Hey, Oleh, best of luck with all your projects. Thanks for being our writer in the spotlight!

My pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.

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