Learn a Life Lesson or Two from John Waters and Raymond Antrobus

The legendary filmmaker/author and the poet talk their writing processes, their new spoken word records, and more.
john waters raymond antrobus

John Waters is a legendary filmmaker — of classics like Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, and Serial Mom — and an author, most recently of Liarmouth, his debut novel; Raymond Antrobus is a Ted Hughes Award winning, Jamaican British poet, who just put out a spoken word record, The First Time I Wore Hearing Aids, this past September. Raymond’s record was produced by Ian Brennan — who also produced John’s new 7” single, released this week on Sub Pop. The two convened to speak about each of their records, and much more. You can also catch John on his A John Waters Christmas tour now through December 21.
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Raymond Antrobus: I know that you have a new spoken word single coming out.

John Waters: It’s the most obscure thing I’ve ever done. I covered a comedy record from 1952 called, It’s in the Book, which was, oddly enough, a number one bestselling record in America that same year. And that record sort of made me. It was the first sick joke I ever heard. It was the first thing that ever influenced my sense of humor. So I tried to imitate him. 

I actually wrote a lot about him in one of my older books, Role Models. And he, the comic Johnny Standley, was very persnickety. He was from the Midwest, and I even tracked down his relatives when I was writing that book, and they were great. They were happy that somebody remembered him. 

So this record, it’s going to be kind of amazing. It’s on Sub Pop again, and I did another record with them before that was a tribute to Pasolini. So I’m thrilled for this one to be coming out. But it is very, very obscure, and people will be mystified if they’ve never heard the original record. If you’re at a certain age, you definitely remember it. Too bad that most of those people are dead. [Laughs.] 

Raymond: And what is it like working in the spoken word format? What freedom do you think that gives you that maybe the visual format doesn’t — when you privilege just the sound?

John: Well, I know from doing all my audio books that I’m not good at reading somebody else’s book. I did that once for a job, and I think I was bad at it. But I think I am good at reading my own, because I wrote it.

With records, you know, it’s so amazing that more people are buying vinyl again. I still have a lot of vinyl. But all my old records, if they were in mint condition, would be worth a fortune today. I had the most obscure, great rhythm and blues, and all. But they’re all scratched and wrecked, because I played them all the time when I was young. You have a new record out, too. What’s your album, Raymond?

Raymond: So, it’s spoken word album I made with Grammy-winning producer, Ian Brennan, who records rural artists in remote places all over the world and has worked with people like Tinariwen and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott…

John: Yes, I know Ian well. We’ve been working together for 22 years and he’s produced all three of my singles.

Raymond: Ian knows a lot about sound. The album is titled The First Time I Wore Hearing Aids, and is kind of an experiment in some ways, because so much of the work on it is around deafness, and exploring the sonic ways people might experience that.

John: But you talk about racism, too, since you have experiences with both, right? 

Raymond: Yes.

John: But what is the equivalent word for racist when people discriminate against deaf people? I don’t know it. Is there one?

Raymond: Maybe the most generous or far-reaching word is “ableism.”

John: Oh, I thought that was the good word! [Laughs.] So an “ableist” would be negative?

Raymond: Yes. I’m suddenly hearing now how that could be confusing. [Laughs.]

John: Well, I think that a deaf person writing with another deaf person about what stupid things people say to them could be very cutting edge. I mean you should write a book on that — you know, dumb things that hearing people say.

Raymond: Oh, yeah, for sure.

John: What would be one of the most common questions that gets on your nerves, that you’ve heard a million times?

Raymond: I guess the main one is the idea that deafness is always this kind of caricature thing. Where like, you can hear nothing. And that’s not what deafness is. People have different kinds of deafness. So my deafness is going to be different than another person’s. It is a diverse experience.

John: Yeah, I felt bad right away earlier. The first thing I said to you on this call was: “Can you hear me?” [Laughs.] But I meant it because we’re talking over the internet, not because you’re deaf. And then I thought, Oh, God, look how I’ve started this off! I guess I’m an ableist, right?

Raymond: [Laughs.] No. That’s funny. And then yeah, there’s this thing about just by having a visible disability due to wearing hearing aids, that sometimes a person you’re speaking with becomes afraid. You know, it’s almost sometimes that in order to communicate with someone, you have to kind of downplay your disability. You have to downplay your deafness, so that they aren’t uncomfortable, right? So that’s like a common kind of feeling and situation.

One of the other things is with sign language, there’s a few signs which are very similar to other words in foreign sign languages. So, for example, the British sign for where you live happens to be basically the same sign as in American Sign Language for toilet. So I was trying to use sign language with this American person once and they kept asking me, “Why do you keep talking about toilets?”

John: [Laughs.] That is amazing that even though both Britain and America speak English, that the sign language is different.

Raymond: Yes, totally different. Like we sign our alphabet with two hands, whereas Americans sign all of the letters with just one hand.

John: So, you did a children’s book? Did you illustrate it, too?

Raymond: No. I worked on the book, Can Bears Ski?, with a friend of mine, Polly Dunbar, who’s also deaf. She illustrated it. But I had so much fun with the children’s book that, in fact, doing it made me feel like wanting to do more collaborative stuff because, you know, writing is a very solitary activity. You spend so much time in your head, and then it goes out into the world, and then you kind of wait for response and wonder what people think about the things that have been in your head for X amount of time. Whereas, with the children’s book, I just wrote it and then we had this whole discussion around the illustrations and how to bring them to life — what color, what shape should this world be in — and I loved that. 

How would you say that writing for film is different from writing for just the page?

John: I don’t know that it’s so different, because the main thing is, you just have to go in a room every day and do it. You have to go write Monday to Friday. I write every morning from 8 to 11:30 AM. And you have to do that. I’ve written all my books, all my movies, stand-up routines, and even the text for my photography books, but you know the only thing I have never written is poetry. And I am really ill-equipped for that.

But I have a funny story to tell you. I took the legendary actress, Jeanne Moreau with me to the French premiere of A Dirty Shame, one of my movies that was pretty filthy and rated NC-17.

Raymond: Yeah, yeah.

John: So I’m sitting next to her nervous the whole time wondering, What could she be thinking? And finally it was over, and I was just so nervous, I didn’t know what to say. So, I said, “We had a lot of censorship problems.” And she replied, “Why? It was poetry to me.” And no one has ever said that about any of my films, ever. And it was Jeanne Moreau that said that. So now I guess I can say that I’m a “poet.” [Laughs.]

Raymond: I wanted to ask you something about your latest book, Liarmouth. I actually want to ask you about the term, “liarmouth,” itself. I know that it appears in the book itself, too. And there’s a great paragraph where when it comes up, it’s a moment that as a reader you’re kind of forced to pay extra attention.

John: Well, I love it when they have a title in a movie like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? or What’s the Matter with Helen?, where the actors actually say the title. It always makes me crazy. But “liarmouth” is a very American term, I think. I don’t think they use it anywhere else. Somebody pointed out to me that in my film Polyester, Divine calls her daughter a liarmouth. And I didn’t even remember that. [Laughs.] So, it is kind of an angry thing that children say in America. And it’s not a high-class term, either. It’s all one word, not two words. 

Raymond: As someone who has worked in so many mediums, how does one go about expressing the true, free dimension of self in their art? My guess is that perhaps you have so many different parts of yourself, with so many different things that you want to say that you need different kinds of mediums, different energies. I think I’m just, kind of a little bit jealous of how many modes you’ve been able to work in.

John: Basically, I need a way to tell a story, and you know if I can’t get a movie made, I write a book. Writing a book is just as important to me as making a movie. I go do a spoken word show and tell stories. That’s what I do. It’s all the same basic body of work. No matter if it’s a spoken word record, my annual Christmas comedy tour, if it’s my movies, if it’s a photography show, or when I host the Mosswood Meltdown punk rock festival every summer in Oakland or my Camp John Waters where people come and live together as my characters for a long weekend, it’s all part of one piece of work that I do, and they’re also backup careers. That’s all. Nothing lasts forever. So, always have a couple extra things going, and never have a hobby. I’m so offended when people say to me, “Do you have a hobby?” No! I have failed careers. But I do not have “hobbies.” That’s for amateurs.

Raymond: [Laughs.] This is great! I’m literally taking notes. This feels like life lessons.

John: You know I got thrown out of practically every school I ever went to, and not one person that has ever paid me for any job in my whole life has asked me if I went to school. School often doesn’t nurture creativity and they wouldn’t let me be what I wanted to be. But instead today, I mean you could go to some fancy college and make a snuff movie and get an “A” grade. As long as it was the politically correct targets that were killed.

Raymond: [Laughs.] You just finished another book. You must have such a kind of busy, active mind. Are you already kind of working on the next thing?

John: I always have the next project ahead of me, and right now that will be writing the screenplay for Liarmouth. So I always have projects that hopefully are in line, and when I don’t have a project in development, I’ll pick up a new career. Maybe that’s what I’ll become next: a poet! I wish I could be. I never have written a play either. But I think poetry is probably the very hardest thing and I don’t have the nerve to try, because I don’t know enough about it to even parody it.

Raymond: That’s interesting. Yeah, when I think about how poetry is represented in films and television, I feel like there isn’t anywhere that has really gotten it right. It’s either kind of buffoonish or… instead, with my experience as a poet, the reality is that I go to prisons and schools, and different places, you know?

John: I taught in prison, too. It’s one of the best student bodies you can have.

Raymond: Why do you think that is?

John: Because I learned from them so much, you know? We were allowed to make little movies in there, and they kept saying, “Are you even allowed to show us your movies? How could that be?”

In my class, the first day, like 30 people came. Fifteen of them quit, dropped it immediately. But the 15 that stayed were great, just as long as nobody else in the prison knew what was going on. I was in a locked room with 15 people who were murderers. But I never was scared of them. I was kind of scared of the guards, though. The prisoners, put something over the window of the door because they didn’t want anyone to see in. Everybody played the opposite of their everyday character and experience. So it was amazing. Like group therapy. But they just didn’t want anybody else to know what was going on in there.

Raymond: That line between art and therapy is an amazing one.

John: If you can make people laugh they will listen. You don’t win the battle by making your enemy feel stupid, even if they are stupid. What you do is you make them laugh, and then they’ll listen to you, and then maybe one of your ideas will infect them and they’ll be a little less stupid, or at least more on your side.

Raymond: Yeah, we definitely need a bit more of that, I suppose. Given how strangely and intensely political everything is now — I mean, it kinda always has been — but it seems like we have reached a different kind of intensity. Am I right or insane? I’m asking you as someone who has such a long cultural view.

John: Well, it’s more now that everybody’s angry about everything. And everything feels like it doesn’t work anymore. I mean, one of my new, spoken word shows is called The End of the World. But we have to think of alternative ways to be an optimist, which is even harder. And maybe you have to be funnier than ever before.

Tickets for A John Waters Christmas are on sale now. Special thanks to Ian Brennan for facilitating this conversation!

(Photo Credit: left, Greg Gorman; right, Marilena Umuhoza Delli)

John Waters has written and directed sixteen movies, including Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Polyester, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Serial Mom and A Dirty Shame. He is also a photographer whose work has been shown in galleries all over the world and the author of several books, including Shock Value, Crackpot, Art: A Sex Book (cowritten with Bruce Hainley), Role Models and the 2014 bestseller Carsick, which chronicles his adventure hitchhiking across the United States in May 2012. The restoration of Multiple Maniacs is out now through Janus Films.