Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us JG. For those of you who were listening last week, there were several hints to suggest who JG is. He grew up in Southern California. He’s a poet, and he held the record for most TED talks at one point. And as a hint, JG is the expert of 4:00 in the morning.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Overcome Stage Fright As A Poet with Rives
Welcome back, listeners. If you were clever enough to figure out who JG is, you would know that he is the legendary, Rives, the master of 4 AM, an incredible poet and award-winner and someone I have the privilege of considering a friend and former dinner guest. Rives, welcome to the show.
Hi, Jon. Thanks for the description and for having me.
Can you brag a little about the awesome things that you’ve accomplished over the years? There are so few professional poets that most of us come in contact with. You’re a total anomaly. Can you just brag a little?
I’ll take anomaly but I guess there are plenty of professional poets. I think they maybe teach and publish. I’m a poet. I started out as a spoken word poet. Even now, I focus more on what you’d say as the stage rather than the page. I’m a long-time poet fan so I studied this stuff since I was a child. Now, that’s how I make my living. I do appearances and I speak and I speak at corporate events and I speak at colleges, which is usually much more fun than a corporate event. That’s how I pay my rent. Starting in about 2003, 2004, it became enough, and I’m talking about bottom line financially, for me to quit my previous job and just to do that. In fact, I couldn’t do the two simultaneously. Starting in 2003, I started writing poet on my tax form and it’s been that way ever since. Most of the time the living has been good.
You’ve actually graced the stage of one of the most respected speaking outlets in the world on more than one occasion. Isn’t that right? At one point, you had the most main staged TED proper talks on their website. Isn’t that right?
Right. TED.com went online in 2008. At that point, I’d already been to a few TED conferences and performed at them. They dipped into their reservoir and put some of my, at that point, one or two-year-old pieces on there. When I had four up there, I think that was the record at the time. I have six now but that’s no longer the record.
One of my favorite pieces to ever be on the TED main stage was yours called, what was it?
I don’t know what your favorite is but I know you like the 4:00 in the morning jam, is that right?
I actually did two talks. In 2007, I did a mock conspiracy theory about 4:00 in the morning in art and culture. That’s what a lot of people know me for. I get recognized on the street or in the subway because of that appearance. It was so dramatic, the effect it had on my life, that few years ago, I did another talk about that talk. I did a follow-up on what happened to me after that talk hit. The basis of it is that my initial talk in 2007 was a spoof. I was responding to the TED elitist look. Everybody that’s up there seems to know what they’re doing and have a Nobel Prize or something. Since I didn’t have that, I just made something up, a mock conspiracy theory about 4:00 in the morning. After I did it and after it got posted online, people all around the world started sending me examples of 4:00 in the morning in art and culture. They started doing my job for me even though, to be honest, I wasn’t actually into it. I just did it as a joke.
As I say in my second talk about it, if enough people think that you collect panda bears and send them to you, at a certain point you totally collect panda bears. At this point, I must have the world’s largest collection of 4:00 in the morning references for two reasons: One, nobody else is doing this and two, every day someone around the world sends me something. Yesterday, it was the new U2 song. A couple of people have noticed when U2 were on Jimmy Kimmel last week that they had a song that has 4:00 in the morning in it and people sent me that.
It’s like when people say, “Jon, you’re the foremost expert on the science of adventure.” I’m like, “There’s nobody else that gives a damn about it.” I’m also the least understanding expert because I’m literally the only person that cares.
There is a guy, I was going to say kid but I’ve known him so long now, he was in high school but now he’s graduated college. There is a young guy in Indiana who’s been corresponding with me since 2008 and he’s into it. If I had to pass on, I think I would just give the whole server to him. I’d give the hard drive to this guy, not that he would do anything with it but I do know there’s at least one other person out there who at least, as you say, gives a damn.
What is the accomplishment that you have that your mother is most proud of?
Before this, I was a paper engineer. I did make these pop-up books. I have a patent. I designed something and it was so original that the company filed for a patent. You can’t file for a patent in the name of a company, it has to be in the name of the inventor. I was the inventor, so I have a US patent. I sold it to the company for a dollar, which is fair, I was working for the company when I originated this thing. It’s not that big a thing, it’s only been used that one time. But my mom continues to ask about this. I guarantee you, if you just met my mom in the market and just ask her about her kids, within three minutes you would hear the word patent.
When people discover that you’re a poet, what’s the most common question?
The most common response is probably something mocking.
Like, “But how do you actually pay the bill?”
Exactly. They’ll either imply that I live in a garret somehow. They’ll imply that I have some other side gig, like when someone in Los Angeles, where I’m from, says they’re an actor and you say, “What restaurant do you work at?” Or they say, “You mean the kind of person who speaks like this?” To all three of those things, ha-ha and go fuck yourself.
In that case, what’s the most interesting question somebody has asked you?
When you’re a poet, especially a spoken word poet, you get a lot of younger poets asking you for advice. Some of it is really naïve. They want to know what kind of pen and pad you use as if, if they went out and got that they would do the same. It does sublimate skill and practice and talent. The number one question as far as interest is the one that everybody asks which is, “Where do you get your ideas?” That one is so common that people sometimes don’t even answer it from the stage. It’s very, very common from young people, “Where did you get your ideas?” I think that’s the most interesting because you’ve got to come up with an answer for that. That would be the most interesting question.
What’s the answer?
If it’s a young person, I do tell them, “I’m not being a smartass, you know what really helps? Talent helps. I couldn’t have done this if I weren’t innately talented. If you’re not feeling like that’s something that is working out for you,” because there are a lot of people with starry-eyed dreams and you want to encourage. I tell them, “Talent helps. And the big freaking thing is hard work.” My whole style looks effortless. I even script my “uhms” and whatever. I’m just getting up there and not hitting you over with this aggressive cadence, I’m just talking up there. The idea that that’s just coming out of my mouth is not only ludicrous, it also really doesn’t give honor to the hours and hours that my living room chairs have to listen to this thing coming out of my mouth. I’m constantly, constantly, constantly working. You can’t pass on experience. That’s the idea.
It’s looking somebody in the face and say, “I’ll be honest with you. No one is prodigious enough to be the overnight success.” We’ve fetishized that in the United States. We’ve got the discovered in a drug store thing. American Idol was built around this idea of the overnight success. Nobody, not even Usher, not even Michael Jackson is prodigious enough to go from nothing to the stage of Carnegie Hall or the Apollo or whatever. You’ve got to put in your time.
What are some of the other pitfalls for people who want to be in your industry? Besides the belief that they could be an overnight success or having the right pen and pad will make them a poet.
We’re mostly talking about young people now. I truly, truly don’t want to be derogatory because when you’re moonstruck, you want to know these answers. You want to hope that there’s a sword out of the stone kind of solution. Without pulling that at all, I think that this is really legitimate. One pitfall that is compelling I would say, this is related to hard work but is the, “Don’t be flaky.” Every year, it seems like in the poetry scene you see a couple of people who are hot. They’re raw or young or both and they’re hot. You go, “I wonder where they’ll be in a year or two.”
At the end of a year or two, sometimes it’s not the people that you thought. Those people drifted off for some reason, but most of the time it is flakiness. Most of the time, it’s showing up late for the thing or not remembering someone’s name. Meanwhile the person that does that is making the connections, is getting the repeat commission and is moving on ahead. I would say flakiness is a huge pitfall. When I say flakiness, I’m talking about even little things, little lapses. Maybe not treating this as an actual career or treating it as a profession or treating yourself as a brand or an entity or somebody with responsibilities. It’s cool. If you are doing the whole thing like, “I’m a poet. I’m drinking. I’m shagging people,” that’s great. That is a great, great thing. People actually really like that. They expect that. You’re doing it. You’re killing it. Good job.
But if you don’t show up, you don’t know what a call time is for 10:00 or whatever. You go to a venue on a Friday night here in town at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. It says it starts at 9:00, that thing is not starting until 10:00. You know what a 9:00 call time is in a professional venue? It’s fucking 8:50. There’s that. I guess that pitfall of just being flaky and not realizing that there’s a big, big difference between what you got and what you do.
It’s a question for you too. You know a lot of artistic people. We all assume that the scientists and the researchers, we all assume they got their shit together. I think we all know artists who don’t apparently have their shit together but even if they don’t, I guarantee you they worked hard or they have really good representation. I’m thinking of an A list person right now who does not have his shit together but he did at one point. He knew enough to get a guy who has his shit together.
I think one of the things you’re speaking to is that first of all, there are very few people who are so talented that they could constantly screw up and still be on demand. If you don’t have the skill set to be a responsible human being, then you have to outsource that behavior to somebody who can manage you that you’ll actually listen to. Otherwise, you’re going to be totally screwed. In general, in life things fall apart the older that you get. At the peak of your self-control and skill and health, you still can’t manage that stuff, then hire somebody who can.
Right, exactly. No harm in it. I like how you said at the peak. It’s true because how do you know it’s a peak? Usually at the time the peak, there are also these attendant generosities and these attendant candies that might make it distracting.
Let’s change gears a little. I’m curious about what inspires you? Is there a certain book that really influenced you or certain lessons that you took from a book that really made a big difference in your life?
As far as poetry goes, there are a couple of books that I keep around that when I open them I just shake my head like, “This person’s awesome.” If you take the collected works or the best of Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, these are three poets, as it turns out all American poets as well. I still open these things and just SMH, I cannot believe what this person’s doing.
Is there a certain quote that inspires you?
There’s a quote from A River Runs Through It and I misquote it a little bit but it really works and I think it’s inspirational, which is, “Good things come from grace. Grace comes from art. And art does not come easy.”
Do you have a hero?
I do have a hero. I’m going to just go straight up old school. I’ve really, really thought about this. I was a Classics Major, I studied myths and heroes and Joseph Campbell and all that kind of stuff, story arcs. I’m still just going to go back to my grandpa because when I look back now, I realize that was the guy, this is very personal by the way, who taught me how to be what I consider a man. That’s a man right there. See that guy? That’s a man. For good and bad, there are a bunch of other mentors in my life that didn’t have the whole package or had some flaws that I didn’t see. When I was there at the time and looking back now I go, “Okay, thank you.” Definitely, he’s in the pantheon, that’s my hero. That’s the one that I look to the most in a real way.
What would he do in this scenario?
He already taught me. He already left me with everything I need to know. I guess it’s a little bit like, “What would he do?” but he’s not around anymore. It’s like, “Now, what did you learn? What do we know?” Not only that, I want to get away from, “What would he do?” If you opened a door for a stranger for example, you probably shouldn’t be thinking about that. I know people think about it like as the pay it forward act of kindness. Bullshit. Open the fucking door. If you think of it a little too much, “What would he do?” then maybe you missed the lesson. Do it. Be kind. Stand up for people who can’t stand up for themselves. Or you’re lucky. What would he have already done?
If you get a random email from somebody inviting you to something, asking to sit down with you and you don’t know them. It’s a stranger. What would they have said in that message that would have you accept the invitation?
I get these a lot. I get a lot of emails from a lot of people. I’ll tell you what the wham is. First of all, I imagine you’re asking so that people can get their introduce yourself to strangers mojo going. Whenever anybody asks me for effort like I got to do something, it’s a piece of cake to write an author and say, “Here are ten questions that I got in my eleventh grade English class. I have to do a report on a living writer. Can you answer these ten?” That took you fifteen seconds. If I’m going to answer those even in a thoughtful way, it’s going to take me a long time and I didn’t get anything in return. The idea is that anything that keeps me from doing the thing that you know me for, I’m not going to be inclined to do. I’m not a correspondent. I’m not a coach. I do all of these things by my own bid.
If I did all of the stuff that came in, I wouldn’t be a poet. I would be a correspondent or I would be a show-up at your lunch or whatever. It would be truly humble and not falsely so and it would be weird because I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. On a very nuts and bolts way, it would be worth it to me, I would imagine it would be worth it to do the thing. You know this, a lot of these requests, I don’t mind not accepting them or turning them down because I do my own thing. In four hours, I’m going up to Washington Heights to teach an ESL class. I do the thing. Don’t hit me with the volunteerism. I’ve got myself covered in that. Don’t hit me with the, “You should do pro bonos.” Matthew 6 something, “The right hand gives and the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” Same thing, I don’t need to defend myself. I got my good. Don’t hit me with the plea like that because I got enough of this.
I very rarely get into correspondence with strangers and I call my new life email from strangers. That’s what I call. When I’m trying to describe my life, before I did this, I didn’t get emails from strangers. Now, I get emails from strangers every day. I’m not saying that’s a big thing, I’m not saying I’m a big deal. I’m saying that’s the difference. What you’re exactly asking is how I characterize a new way. Emails from strangers, I very rarely get into an actual correspondence. I’m trying to answer your question so that the person can be heartened but at the same time I’m trying to protect myself, which is I think most people will be like, “Don’t write me. My inbox is already getting emails.” Something good.
Let’s dive into the lighting round. These are super quick questions that are only a few words or a sentence. Is there an organization you’re really passionate about or a non-profit activity?
What’s a very human secret that you would feel comfortable sharing on the podcast? Some people talk about their anxieties, some people talk about they were sick as a child or something like that or had eczema and they’re very self-conscious. What’s something you feel comfortable sharing?
Not just comfortable but I’ll broadcast the shit out of it. I used to get paralytically nervous. I still sometimes get nervous. I know I look like I don’t. I’m telling you right now, I do.
What did you do to tackle that? It could destroy a person’s life.
I’m talking about stage fright. As far as destroying your life, it’s optional to get up in front of people and do this, which I remind myself. I had coping mechanisms. The best thing you can do for a stage fright that I found is experience, practice. Make yourself do it.
It’s exposure therapy.
Exactly. I’m not going to get stage fright in front of a room of twelve people anymore, I’m not. Thank goodness.
If you could be any comic book hero, who would it be?
I think I would be Shmoo. Do you remember Shmoo?
I remember Groo the Wanderer.
No. I know you’re more like golden age comic book and everything. Shmoo, it came out of Li’l Abner. I don’t know if he was an alien or a weird thing. He looks like a kidney bean and he could do anything and he was bottomless-ly kind and he was edible. You could eat him. He was really helpful. I would say Shmoo. Look it up.
Our last question: If you could meet anyone who’s alive and have dinner with them, who would it be?
When people ask that question I usually answer with dead people. It’s like the Nobel Prize. Who knows the person I picked that’s alive could still do something whack. Vin Scully, former broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He did it for decades and he just, last season, had to hang up the mic.
Rives, this was an absolute treat. You’ve had some of those interesting answers to our questions. For people who wanted to be able to stay in touch with you, how do they do that? They can find you on your website, I’m assuming?
They can. If you Google “Rives,” you should in some of the first results get my website which is ShopLiftWindChimes.com. I’m currently on a two-year sabbatical, so I don’t really do too much and it’s represented in my website. That’s how you can get me. I’m Rives@ShopLiftWindChimes.com. You can go to Twitter and Instagram for the Museum of Four in the Morning, which sabbatical notwithstanding, I do update regularly.
Thanks so much for coming on the show. Listeners, stay tuned for the anonymous interview.
Rives is a poet, multimedia artist and 6time TED speaker. He likes what everybody likes: houseplants, motorcycles and the National Register of Historic Places. Rives is the curator of Museum of Four in the Morning.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Listeners, now for my favorite activity, the anonymous interview. We have the incredible AJ with us. AJ, thank you for joining us.
I’m really excited to be hosting you because you’re the first person I’m hosting that I refer to as family.
Right back at you, cousin.
For those of you who know anything about my background, it might require a few generations back, but AJ is actually my cousin and actually might be related to one of you guys too.
I probably am.
Before we get into that, AJ, tell me a little bit about yourself. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York City right in Manhattan there.
How is that possible? You’re so friendly and nice.
I think that Manhattanites get a bad rep. I think we’re very friendly, we’re very nice.
Was there an incident or a teacher experience that inspired you to go down the path you went?
I was just thinking about that because you had mentioned teachers. This is a little bit of an odd story. When I was in sixth grade, a science teacher got very angry at one of the kids and he lost his temper and he threw a piece of chalk at the kid. Then he freaked out because he realized, “Oh my God, this is terrible. I’m going to get fired.” He was like, “I’m so sorry. That was so inappropriate.” That made me realize that adults screw up just as much as kids, that adults don’t know everything. That to me was such revelation and it made me think, “People mess up. Don’t believe everything you hear just because adults said it.” It was like a Santa Claus moment.
Did you have a similar experience when you found out the truth about Santa?
I can’t remember but I will tell you this, I have kids and they ask me about Santa and I said the same thing. I tell them about God which is, “I don’t know if Santa exists, maybe, maybe not. Some people believe them. Some people don’t.” They were like a 60 minutes inquisitor. They were like, “What do you think? Do you think Santa exists?” They broke me down. I told them, “Santa didn’t exist.” I am a weak man.
I doubt that’s true considering all of the content that you’ve written about requires an incredible level of self-control.
It definitely does. A lot of that is me pretending to be brave. I think that is one of my secrets to life. I’m naturally not a very brave person but I pretend to be brave and then once you pretend long enough, it catches up with you.
Is there a certain accomplishment in your career that you’re most proud of?
I would say I’ve done several books where I’ve had to radically alter my lifestyle to the point of almost driving my wife to divorce me. One of them involved following all the rules of the Bible as closely as possible. I had a huge beard and I actually wore a robe and sandals and I tried not to sin, which is very hard. Things like no gossiping and no coveting, that’s hard. That’s pretty much what a New York journalist does 80% of the day. That was a huge challenge and I am proud I came out the other side.
You’re one of these wildly immersive experiential people. You also spent a year trying to be the healthiest man on earth, right?
I did. Actually, it was two years because I was so out of shape. I’m not like Jon Levy. I’m not trim and fit, so I needed to do everything. Exercise and diet but also my posture, my sex life. I tried to make everything as healthy as possible. I wrote the book while walking on a treadmill. I had one of those treadmill desks.
In light of all this, who would play you in a movie and why?
Oddly, they are making a TV show out of one of my books. It won’t be on by the time this comes out. I am being played by a guy who is much handsomer and much Christianer.
If you look at a photo of AJ, you’ll realize that much handsomer leaves more than 50% of that happening?
That’s nice. I’ll take that.
You are related to me. I have to stand up for you somewhat.
I am no Jon Levy. Let’s just get that out.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done on a dare or a bet or a stunt besides living according to the Bible and being the healthiest man alive?
This is related to The 2 AM Principle. As I said, I think I’m pretty naturally timid. But right around college or right after I graduated, I decided to push myself and do as many physically dangerous things as I could. I did the hand gliding and the parachuting. The parachuting was interesting because this was a long time ago. I’m an old man. This was before you would jump tandem. This was when you would get in an airplane and you would have to put your hands on the wing of the airplane and you’re hanging off the wing alone. They won’t let you back in. He said, “You try to come back in, I will kick you out, physically kick you in the stomach,” because it’s more dangerous to try to get back in. You’re just hanging on the wing of the airplane and you know you’re going to have to let go at some point and you’re just like, “All right, let’s do it.” It only lasted a couple of years, this obsession with extreme dangerous physical activities.
I like how you pretend that you’re timid and meek and really you’re probably one of the bravest people I’ve come across.
I am pretending to be brave. I am really quite timid. That is one of the big messages of all my books, I pretend to be optimistic and I eventually become optimistic. It’s all the, “Fake it until you make it.” There’s a phrase that I love, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Pretend that you are this optimistic go-getter and you’ll eventually become one.
Was there a moment or experience that you had that you felt that you really made it?
I was number one down on the New York Times’ crossword puzzle about two years ago. That was exciting. One across was Judd Apatow. I actually emailed him. He’s a director, directing a comedy. I emailed him and said, “This is the closest we’ll probably ever get to working together. I just wanted to let you know I’m one down and you’re one across.” He was very polite. He wrote back and said, “It was an honor to be in the same crossword grid.”
Last question: What hint or riddle would you give people to figure out who you are? Here’s a hint or a riddle. Listeners, we call him AJ and then we say his last name when you read his byline and so on, but it’s a lie because you don’t need to say his last name.
I like it.
Listeners, I look forward to your guesses and hopefully one of you will figure out who he is and get an invitation to The Salon by Influencers.