Scott Laudati has worn a number of hats in his short time on earth. He spent his teenage years as a punk about New Jersey, soaking in the massive emo scene that took the Garden State by storm in the early aughts. He took inspiration from those lead singers who thought of themselves as poets screaming in Jersey basements, and when he went off to college he started penning his own poetry. Scott wrote frank reflections on life, love, drugs, and the woes of having to work to make a living in a world that’d often rather see you die. Upon graduation he moved to NYC and fell in love with the city he’d be staring at across the river his whole adolescence, while coming to terms with how cruel a place it could also be. Scott worked at a swanky Manhattan hotel and saw that capitalist power dynamic play out at his job every day, writing about the rich people he worked for and the absurd shit they’d make him do in his poetry and letting it naturally seep into the novels he started to write, all while staying connected to the punk scene that had originally brought the poet out of him. Along the way he did some public readings, picked up some fans, and even found the time to get nominated for the prestigious Pushcart Award three times, once for fiction and twice for poetry.
Lately Scott has taken up work as a union dock builder while continuing to write. Quarantine provided him with plenty of time to be reflective on the life he’s lead and the writing he’s done to chronicle it. That lead him to revisit his first collection of poems Hawiian Shirts in the Electric Chair, which he originally wrote as a student at Ramapo. The Redux of that collection, which was released a little over a week ago from the good people at Cephalo Press, includes an additional ten poems, and it’s notable how prescient this collection proved to be for our bizarre modern age. In this collection Scott ruminates on how capitalism can humiliate the poor by denying them any basic dignity as he confronts a myriad of institutional problems that existed but went largely unremarked on during the Obama years when these poems were originally penned. These tales are interwoven with stories of young romance and the pitfalls that naturally occur, the highs and lows of drug use, and the giddy excitement and nervous longing of being young and figuring out exactly who you actually are, all with a humanity and frankness that is often absent from the poets an academic study of the genre will lead you to read. The modern writer that Scott reminds me most of in fact would have to be Jeff Rosenstock, another punk who spent his adolescence hopping from basement show to bar show whose music seems to be more sibylline with every passing year. The two write frankly about the world they see around them with easily digestible everyday language in a way that makes you feel like you’re finally seeing the string that’s been hanging in front of your face this whole time.
To celebrate the redux of Hawaiian Shirts in the Electric Chair, now available for purchase, Scott is sharing a poem from the collection with GSC, “Hollywood Rain”, and took the time to answer some questions on his life, his poetry, and his hopes and fears for our fair planet.
You started off looking for Rome like I did.
In poems, in love letters,
written for a city planes fly to every day
but you knew
you hadn’t earned it yet.
you went to West Hollywood,
a walk each night down Sunset,
not exactly The Malecón
or The Rue des Rosiers
but the girls are skinny
and sometimes you follow the one
with the German Sheperd
to a house her father couldn’t afford
until they painted the walls
with Sharon and her baby.
The neighbor’s thought a murder
would sink the value but they forgot
the California sun can
And when the tourists come
she puts her yoga mat in front of the bay window,
falling into downward dog
like she doesn’t know what she’s doing.
And the men snap pictures of her
stretched out on this cursed land,
almost as rare
as a Hollywood rain
but nowhere near as beautiful.
What is your name and how do you identify?
My name is Scott Laudati and I sort of see myself as a Norman Rockwell, I’m just documenting a much shittier time in history.
What made you pick “Hollywood Rain” as the poem you wanted to share with GSC?
To be honest, it’s short, so I thought it had the best chance of getting read. But I wrote it sitting on the corner of La Brea and Hollywood Blvd watching Maserati after Maserati pull up to a group of runaway kids prostituting themselves. Then you’d look up a little higher and the Hollywood Hills would be glowing under the California sun. The mansions sat along this crown looking down on all the peasants in the valley and stinking horror of Hollywood. I just pictured the rich without a worry in the world sipping their coffee as little kids were being sold for sex less than a mile away. It was a perfect juxtaposition for this joke we call a country. And so were the Manson murders. This is the kind of dichotomy that permeates Hawaiian Shirts.
How did this collection of poems, Hawaiian Shirts In The Electric Chair Redux, come together?
The original poems were written over the course of a semester in my dorm at Ramapo College. This was before social media and I didn’t even know poems still got published. I just needed something to do after my roommates went to bed and I couldn’t play my guitar.
This book is a revamped republishing of your 2014 collection of the same name, with an additional ten poems included. What made you want to revisit and add to this collection? Do you feel differently about the poems now than you did originally? So many of the poems felt prescient for our bizarre time.
I wanted to give this book another shot because I think I was a better writer then than I am now. I’ve learned how to write since but something gets lost with age. I think they feel fresh because I was all emotion and wasn’t worried about them ever being read, like I said, I didn’t even know living people could publish poetry, so I wrote them with no fear.
I cringe a little when I see the way I wrote women then. I was very insecure, so I think I was trying to sound cooler than I was. I left those poems largely unchanged though, apparently that’s how I felt at 21, and I was probably an asshole, and I think that’s important to catalogue as well. I still apologize to all my ex’s every time I see them.
As for the political poems – those will always be timeless. The government is always bad. Sometimes it’s abysmally dystopian bad, sometimes it’s just hopeless, but it’s always bad. When an artist tries to put a positive spin on the government, that’s when you know his/her art will be dated almost immediately.
What do you think is the connective tissue that binds these poems together?
Youth. I would go back and give anything to see the world like that again. Open eyed and observing a brand new everything. The lyrics of the bands all made sense. The pain hurt more. The nights went on forever. Hawaiian Shirts is leaving home and getting on a bus and seeing the world for the first time.
What is your creative process for putting a poem together? Do they spill out of you or is it more deliberate?
Often I’ll write three or four poems I really like in one sitting. Then I might not write another one for a month. The foundation is always fast and easy. I’ll spend weeks rewriting and editing every single poem.
Your poems are poignant while talking about contemporary matters in a very digestible fashion. How did you go about cultivating your voice?
Luckily I didn’t read Bukowksi until much later in life. If you read him young I think you get trapped. Honestly it was Conor Oberst who made me a poet. I’d write something that was like 4 sentences, then I’d listen to him and see that he said the same thing in 1 line. I probably listened to every Bright Eyes record 100,000x, maybe more, literally maybe a million times. So trying to master that was my education. Brevity. Editing down. Rewriting. Keeping it simple.
Your boxer Satine comes up in a few poems in this collection. It seems like you and your dog were very close, though I understand she has since unfortunately passed on. What can we learn from our dogs? What did Satine teach you?
Satine and I were telepathic, that probably happened because I was really into walking when she was young and I would talk to her incessantly on our walks. And I thought my love for her would keep her alive forever. I really thought I had hacked the mainframe and I could cheat the Universe. Her dying made me realize for the first time that death was going to happen, and even though humans have been around for a long time we’ve never really accepted this. It freaked me out.
My dog taught me about time. To call your sisters more. To forgive your dad for being an asshole when you were a kid.
Relationships, successful and unsuccessful, are a reoccurring subject matter within this collection. Have you ever had an ex ask you if a poem was about them? What have you learned about your own love life or romantic love in general through your writing?
Almost every poem I’ve written has been about the same girl. Sometimes I’ll call her something different or change up her hair color or whatever to keep it from getting redundant, but that’s it. And yes she knows, and sometimes she likes what I have to say, and often she is very unhappy about it.
I’ve learned that I am an idiot. I never appreciate what I have when I have it. I’m always expecting the end or looking for something else, and then I sabotage myself when everything is going fine. Then I look back and I realize my life was perfect, I had what everyone else wants, and I threw a bomb into it for no reason at all. Each poem is a reminder of my failures, and on very rare occasions – when I did something right.
You also write about a menagerie of drugs in this collection, in both positive and negative contexts. Do you have a favorite or least favorite drug, either to take or write about? Has writing about drug use taught you anything about those substances that taking them or observing others taking them didn’t?
Drugs are awesome if you don’t get addicted to them. Weed makes music sound better. Parties are way more fun with a bag of coke. MDMA makes you and a girl dancing alone for six hours in a shitty bar while the DJ pays brit pop into the most legendary night of your life. But I’m the luckiest person I know, because I’ve really pushed it from time to time, and I never had that voice in my head telling me to do more.
I have a best friend who was straight-edge until he turned 21. We talked him into drinking a bottle of rum on his birthday and less than a year later he had od’d on heroin twice and landed himself in prison for selling it. He is a person who should NOT do drugs ever. But they’ve always been good to me, and I got an awful lot of writing done and published in my 20’s because of speed. Good stuff too. I don’t really do much more than drink now and maybe twice a year I’ll take an Adderall. I’m worried that I did so much cocaine in my 20’s I might end up with early dementia. We also smoked out of soda cans so many times I can only imagine the long term effects of inhaling aluminum. So yeah I’ve given my brain a vacation for a few years.
You’ve been nominated for the Pushcart Award for both your fiction writing and poetry. What is the difference in your creative process when writing poetry versus writing fiction?
Poetry is something I can do quickly on a bus or just kind of when a single line pops into my head. Fiction takes real work and dedication, something you have almost no time to do well once you start having to pay rent. The process is basically the same though. You have to turn off your TV and isolate yourself somewhere, and after an hour or so of that the ideas start percolating.
You grew up in New Jersey and it serves as a very interesting setting for several poems in this collection. What do you love and hate about the Garden State?
Two very important things happened in the county I grew up in – the New Jersey Punk/Ska scene, and Kevin Smith. It was one of the moments in time you read about like Seattle in the 90’s, or Paris in the 20’s, NYC in the 70’s, somehow thousands of awesome bands all formed in their parents’ garages and every weekend the firehouses, vfws, rec center parking lots, all had a punk show going on. There were too many! You’d have to decide between seeing Outline, Midtown, The Movielife, New Found Glory, every weekend! It was amazing and I knew then, even at 14, that this couldn’t last and it would never happen again. I was like a shaman eating the sun at every show, I absorbed it all and saved it, used it as a fuel, and I can still let it out when I need inspiration.
Kevin Smith was from the area too, and his fame and use of our local landmarks in his films was like one of us making it. He showed us that if you wanted to you could make it on your own terms. Every person I knew ran around with a video camera because of him. NJ was probably the most documented place in the world from 1997-2001.
We couldn’t lose back then. We had it all. I wouldn’t trade those years for anything.
Who/what are some of your favorite Jersey writers, musicians, and places to eat?
The 59’ Sound is one of the best albums of all time so they probably get the New Jersey gold medal, but Drive Thru Records was the heart of NJ for years. They seem to have been forgotten by time, but they were as NJ as Bruce Springsteen. And they helped out so many NJ bands who never made it or made them any money, but the owners loved the state and the passion and love NJ kids brought to music. But probably their best contribution was giving Jack Antonoff to the masses. That guy went from a hardcore band to writing songs with Lorde! He’s got his hooks in every end of pop culture.
As for the food – all pizza all the time. It’s crazy that if you took a NJ pizza place and plopped it anywhere else it would be revered for hundreds of miles, but in NJ it’s just another joint. Every plaza from Old Bridge to Mahwah has the best slice, but Romeo’s Pizza in Hazlet, NJ is my favorite. I’ll take trips back to the bayshore just for a slice til the day I die.
New York City similarly is a character throughout many of these poems, both good and bad. What do you find both infatuating and repulsive about New York City?
I love New York City because everything is cinematic. You walk home from a girl’s apartment back to Williamsburg, suddenly you’re in the middle of the bridge, you hear sirens, see ferries, watch the action of 4 boros, hear reggaeton, hear people screaming, a woman walks an Afghan Wolfhound right next to you, it’s really like you are at the center of the world. You can walk the same block and every time it looks completely different. There’s history from the Dutch at the bottom of the island and a stone temple where a man flies huge raptors across the Hudson at the top. I could go on forever. It’s always interesting.
The only thing that infuriates me is how bad they want to kick you out for being poor. There’s no weird neighborhood you can afford anymore. And maybe I’m old and out of touch but I haven’t found anything to replace the old lower east side art and music scene in years. I live in the tiniest one bedroom with my girlfriend on the Bushwick line and our rent is $2200 a month. I’m about to be priced out of the city and it’s the only place I’ve ever wanted to live.
Do you think your New Jersey upbringing shaped your view of New York? I feel like often New Jersians will think of NYC as the place you want to eventually be your whole adolescence only to realize it isn’t the place you thought it would be when you finally get there.
Yeah for me I saw NYC across the river and was like, “Ok, the point of my life is to get there.” But I always loved the New York Dolls, and spent my teens reading about the Hotel Chelsea, so it seemed like the only option. And when I got here I wasn’t disappointed at all. I fell right into a job at The Standard Hotel, so I was making a ton of money, Hawaiian Shirts was published right away, I was giving readings all the time, I loved New York. And I still love it. I love getting drunk at Corner Bistro, or The Starlight Lounge, or The Abbey. I love seeing a 100 breeds of dogs I’ve never seen before in a dog park. The city has gotten a little sanitized, but I would stay here forever if I could afford to. It’s still better than anywhere else I’ve been.
You had mentioned you were involved in the emo and punk scene before COVID hit. Who are some of your favorite current musicians in the scene and who were the bands that got you into it originally?
I’ve been around long enough now where all the bands I loved who broke up are getting back together for their 10 or 20 year anniversary tours, so that’s weird, but it’s still fun even to see someone like Dashboard Confessional play all those old high school songs. Bright Eyes just put out a new album after a decade and it’s awesome. Vinny from The Movielife’s band I Am The Avalanche just put out a new great record.
My absolute current favorite band though is Prince Daddy & The Hyena. Cosmic Thrill Seekers is the best record in a decade, maybe more. It’s like a Pink Floyd level creation. They broke every fucking barrier there is. I can’t believe how good all the kids are at their instruments now. I used to tour with a very big band whose name I won’t say, but half of them sucked so bad at their instruments they weren’t even allowed to play on their actual record, which was selling more than half a million copies. The guys in Prince Daddy are like prodigies compared to the scene only a few years ago.
How has life in quarantine been for you? What movies/books/video games/musicians/content has helped keep you sane? Have you been able to manage economically?
I actually got Covid last January while I was in Spain. I came home and went to the doctor a few times and he said, “This is weird. I’ve never seen anything like this.” It knocked me out for months, and I still don’t have a sense of smell or taste. I have asthma anyway though, so I don’t know if my case is typical.
My job was shut down for a few months and we went up to my girlfriend’s family farm in Rhode Island. It was a great summer. I finished writing a novel and became very good at smoking fish. I also listened to the new Fiona Apple album a ton of times. But I spent most of those months reflecting and writing.
I’m a union Dockbuilder and I’ve been full time working and terrified since August. If I get covid again I’m pretty sure it will kill me after how hard it hit me last time. I’m very exposed at work and really afraid I’m going to give it to my girlfriend who has been totally quarantined now for almost nine months. I can’t believe this is the reality we live in. A whole country playing russian roulette with their lives and their family’s lives every single day. There’re people so much worse off than me though, every day I’m thankful for the privilege of not worrying about going bankrupt.