Sebastian Cummings: How were you first introduced to the world of Theatre and when did you first decide it was something you wanted to explore for yourself?
Sean Lynch: I was first exposed to theater while seeing my older brother perform in “Guys and Dolls” and “Damn Yankees” when he was in high school. At six or seven years old it made an impact on me, that as a boy it can be cool to do something other than sports. Years later, Paul Bernstein opened the door to the theater world for me when I was a freshman at Rutgers Camden back in 2010. I took his Acting 101 course as an elective and got really into improvisation and other fun performance techniques thanks to him. The first major role I had was Judas Iscariot in Paul’s production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. I played the not funny title character in a comedy. My job was to scream and spit at Jesus. As an angsty eighteen year old, acting became an outlet. That was essential, because the more time I spent doing theater, the less time I had to do a bunch of drugs and get into life threatening situations, which I still did, but not as much as I would have. Basically, theater saved my life.
SC: In my experience, acting makes you open the book that is your life and examine yourself and the past experiences that lead to your current state. Did you have that experience as an actor?
SL: To me it depends on where you are in life. I should have realized while playing Torvald Helmer in A Doll’s House that in real life I was also in a toxic relationship, but I didn’t. In retrospect, long after strike happened, I made connections. But at the time I was too busy getting into character to focus on myself. I was kind of a James Dean wannabe, sitting in the corner brooding – away from everyone else, not participating in warm ups, even drinking a bottle of whiskey alone in the quick change while dressed as Simon Stimson of Our Town. I took getting into character so seriously because I wanted to get away from my actual self. It was cognitive dissonance as a twisted form of therapy.
What you’re talking about, examining life and the self, only happened to me in the biggest role that I had, when I played Tom Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. Ken Elliott as a director pushed me to the limits so that I could put on the best performance possible. He taught me the self-discipline needed to take on such a huge role. I had the lines down to the point where I could transform myself. Playing Tom Wingfield gave me the transcendental experience that you’re speaking of, perhaps because as a character he aligned with me in so many ways, especially as a working class kid with big aspirations and the heart of a poet. That role was life changing, although smoking half a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes each performance probably took some years off my life.
SC: Do you feel acting was a calling for you or more of a pathway leading you to your work in poetry?
SL: At first acting was a calling. When I was eighteen or nineteen, I told people I was going to go train hopping out to LA, and go to auditions. I never did that, and I’m glad that I didn’t, not because it was a pipe dream, but because it wasn’t the right calling for me. After playing Tom Wingfield, I became more disciplined in my writing, and later that year, I had my first book published. So yeah, theater was a pathway to poetry in a way, but not deliberately. It certainly helped me fall in love with language even more. Ken Elliott’s obsession with diction rubbed off on me, and Paul Bernstein gave me the confidence to believe in myself; those two professors helped me onto that pathway indirectly.
SC: Over the years, I’ve seen many a theatre enthusiast transition to other art forms, especially in a collegiate setting. Did having the oyster that is Rutgers University at your fingertips make your early exploration of poetry easier?.
SL: Rutgers University as an institution was not my oyster. If anything Philly was my oyster. I believe that the Academia, which is the literary establishment right now, has paralyzed poets in 21st century America. My exploration of poetry in college was very limited. When I took an Irish Literature course with Dr. Timothy Martin, and he gave me encouragement and advice on my essays about Seamus Heaney, then took a trip to Ireland with the class and I visited the land of my ancestors, that was the only time I can say Rutgers University was of any help to me as far as poetry goes.
Institutions of “higher education” have way too much power over us, not just with the crushing amount of student debt that our generation arbitrarily owes, but by way of power over our culture and modes of thought. I think literary analysis should be the only thing of interest for the Academia. Unfortunately that’s not all they’re interested in nowadays. This whole literary MFA culture is a ponzi scheme. It’s not enough that these institutions must financially control us individually by way of tens of thousands of dollars of debt, but they also want to collectively control our artistic output as well? No thanks.
There’s a Philly poet named CAConrad who is now becoming famous and this poet speaks out against what he calls court poets who are puppets of the empire. These same court poets all attended literary MFA programs, I guarantee you. Check out CAConrad if you’re not familiar.
SC: Do you have any mentors? How did you meet?
SL: I am honored to have Lamont Steptoe as my literary mentor, a poet who’s well regarded internationally. It’s kind of surreal to have a mentor whose mentors were Dennis Brutus and James Baldwin. Lamont and I met while I worked at the Barnes and Noble cafe at Rittenhouse Square. It was a minimum wage job without tips, but I gained an invaluable friendship and mentorship in Lamont Steptoe. He was a regular there, and one day he told me that he was a famous poet. I went home and googled his name. There he was. So the next time he came in I handed him my poetry manuscript and he eventually told me he wanted to publish it. Said I was, “the real deal.” That made me more excited about poetry.
SC: From your website, I see that you are the editor of Whirlwind Magazine, a quarterly print and online journal that you co-founded in 2014 with Lamont Steptoe. How did that come to be?
SL: Lamont published my first book, the city of your mind, under Whirlwind Press in 2013, and it was received well with some pretty awesome blurbs by Philly’s second poet laureate Frank Sherlock, the aforementioned CAConrad, and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Book Review Editor, Frank Wilson. Another man I met at the cafe, Alexander Marshall, a retired art curator, was instrumental in getting that book published. Lamont and I would hang out drinking in McGlinchey’s or Dirty Frank’s and talk about poetry and what’s going on in the publishing world. The both of us were tired of the meaninglessness of contemporary literature that’s being published. So we decided to launch a literary journal featuring poetry that “bears witness.”
We’re a quarterly online and in print journal that now publishes both literature and art. Alex helped get the project off the ground, and our second anniversary issue will be coming out in August. We have our launch parties at the Pen and Pencil Club. Poets read from all over the country, and the Whirlwind staff reads the international contributors. It’s gotten pretty big in a small amount of time, and what’s most important is that we’re completely independent.
SC: Your work has been published all over: Poetry Quarterly, Literary Orphans, Scarlet Leaf Review, Tincture Journal, Eunoia Review, Hitherto, East Coast Literary Review, Milkfist, Poetry Ink, A Roomful of Truth, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. And recently your Kickstarter campaign for Broad Street Line: Political Poems, was successfully funded. How does this success make you feel?
SL: It makes me feel good. I’m grateful. However, I don’t actually see myself as successful. Everything I’m doing so far is on a local scale. What not enough people realize is that in this country there are real class divisions. Through Whirlwind Magazine, we’ve been able to bridge divides between ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and other identities. And yet one division that cannot easily be bridged is that of class. On the advice of Lamont a few years ago, I walked from my home in South Philly to a certain Ivy League campus a few miles away that was having a literary event. I felt like I was a serf who wandered into an aristocratic gala. And people think that in America shit like that doesn’t happen. It’s experiences like those that reaffirms my duty to bear witness to injustice and record the experiences of the working class through poetry.
SC: Tell us more about Broad Street Line: Political Poems.
SL: Broad Street Line is a short book of poems, only 24 pages, that seeks to map out the urban underground. Frank Sherlock has an interesting concept of the poet as cartographer, which relates in this work. I wrote the poems in this book so that I could translate experiences and seemingly mundane features in city environments into symbols that may help us understand what we’re doing here. Read the book and you’ll find out more.
SC: What do you aim to accomplish with your work?
SL: My aim is simple. To spread truth. In our society we are led to believe in a thing called moral relativism. This makes it easier for those with the will to power to rule over the masses. When people realize that in everyday experiences there are signs of oppression, then it will be easier for us to live in a better world.
SC: How has your poetry changed you, as a person?
SL: My poetry has made me more determined.
SC: What keeps you going?
SL: Poetry, as well as the love of family and friends. I never used to realize it, but I’m blessed to have good people in my life.
SC: What’s next for you?
SL: I’ve been working on a novel on and off the past couple years, but I keep hitting roadblocks. I’m going to try and get another poetry collection published by a different press. I just need to keep writing. If I keep writing, then what’s next will come to me naturally.