Interview: Life gives us Lemon

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Lemon Andersen is Norwegian, Puerto Rican, and American. He has spent time in the projects in Brooklyn and in jail at Riker’s island. But, first and foremost he is a writer, a poet, a performer – an artist. In the documentary film Lemon, premiering at DOC NYC this Friday, we get a peek into the personal life of Lemon Andersen during a time when he undoubtedly felt vulnerable. After the high of winning a Tony Award for Russell Simmons’ Def Poetry Jam on Broadway he was experiencing a lull in his career and was having a hard time paying the bills. The film chronicles the struggle of trying to push himself further as an artist by writing a play that deals with his painful childhood while at the same time trying to provide for his family. Not surprisingly, the past and the present have a lot in common—not enough money. In one hilarious moment Lemon and his family are celebrating his daughter’s birthday. He is trying hard to give his children the life that he didn’t have. There is food, a pink cake, laughter, and lots of presents. But, one of the presents still has the anti-theft device on it. Lemon bursts out laughing and runs to show his friends. It seems as if he can never really escape his past. I sat down with Lemon to talk about the film, confronting his painful past, and his identity as an artist.

How did this project come about? How did you meet the filmmakers?

I was building my last play and one of the producers from the earlier stages of the show COUNTY OF KINGS had a sister who was looking for a subject to do a documentary about and she came across me. She thought that I would be a great subject and she decided to come on board for the next three years to shoot the process of me putting up a show in New York City.

In the movie you call yourself a, “three-time felon with a Tony Award.” Do you ever feel like you want people to forget the past and focus on your success?

Every time I want people to forget about the fact that I’m a three-time felon they remind me by not giving me a job. So – you know – there’s colleges that won’t me let come and actually speak to their students about an art form that I’m pretty much a master in. They remind that I am – so if this is what I am – then I have to run with it. But, at times I feel like I want to escape that title – now more than ever – just cause it’s not the end all be all to who I am.

Your story is a shining example that having a criminal record and doing time doesn’t determine your future. Some people spend their lives in and out of jail but you were able to break that cycle. At what point did you make a conscious decision to change?

Well I always wanted to change. I always had this aspiration – you know – there was always something in me that wanted something other than what I was growing up around or the kind of habits that I seen. As a kid, even as a nine or ten year old, I was in ballet school. So, I was always chasing the arts. This was a perfect opportunity to move forward when I got into trouble and was in prison. I had three hots and a cot so I was able to have the freedom and the space, unfortunately it was in a cell, but I had the space to really develop more of a passion for the arts and reading. When I came out I guess I was hired to do the arts because arts didn’t really discriminate. All you had to do was be good at your job and there was a lot of community programs around where I could do theater and do poetry and so that’s what really happened.

The movie follows you as you write your play County of Kings. You talk about your mom and watching her pass away. Why was this so important – after all these years – to return to the past and relive those painful feelings?

I think everyone wants to tell their story. I mean we all do. Whether it’s a show or at dinner or to a friend. When I decided I wanted to tell the story I wanted to tell it as a great writer. I didn’t just want to tell the story just to cop a plea or just to get it off my chest. But, when I felt that I was at a place where I was a better writer and I had enough style in me to develop the kind of show that doesn’t necessarily tell you about my mom but entertains as well – that’s when I decided to tell the story. I was being asked that question anyway – throughout my career – cause of the interviews – cause people asked me how did you find poetry. So, all these truths would come out and I felt like – alright – might as well just start telling it all through a show.

You mention your mom a lot but don’t really talk about your dad in the film. Was this on purpose?

My real dad’s story is definitely going to be one of those projects that I’m probably going to end up doing one day. He’s a Norwegian guy, he’s an American guy. I’m half Norwegian. When his story did come up in the development process of the show it just became too long and you have to cut things. Sometimes you have to cut chunks and you have to cut whole characters out. He was one of the characters who had to go first because his story was just too long.

Your mom was Puerto Rican. Did she speak to you in Spanish? Is Puerto Rican food, culture, or music a big part of your life?

If my mom was still around and my grandmother was still around I would probably be more fluent in Spanish. Although I am fluent and I can speak it, I really stopped speaking fluently when I was a kid. After my mom passed away and once my grandmother left there was no reason to speak it cause no one was speaking to me in Spanish. So yeah of course I grew up with everything being freshly made in my family’s home. My grandmother made pasteles from scratch. We didn’t go to the store to buy that stuff, the alcapurrias, everything was made from scratch in my house. My mother was a liberal Puerto Rican. She wasn’t into tradition but she really enjoyed being a Puerto Rican. But she had American habits, like heroin. So that’s really how we grew up. We grew up with American culture whether it was bad or good. Puerto Rican culture in my household, not necessarily in my whole family’s household, but in my household wasn’t really relevant. I grew up with zodiac signs on my way wall I didn’t grow up with capias.

The economy sucks right now. Blacks and Latinos have higher rates of unemployment and schools are cutting back on funding for arts programs. What kind of lasting effect do you think this will have?

I just think the world is a different place right now. I think we are at a new frontier. I can’t really call it cause – as an artist – I really focus on my grind. I mean the Latino and Black communities have never really accepted me in their struggles but the lower class community has. White, Black, or Puerto Rican – I don’t think I see things in those kind of colors. I think I see things in kind of lifestyles. And for me, I relate more to an economic lifestyle than I do to a race or ethnicity. I am Latino and I am Puerto Rican but unfortunately growing up I wasn’t raised with salsa music. So, it’s hard when people ask questions about what I think about the Latino and Black situation cause I don’t see it like that. I see it more as an American situation and a lower class situation.

Your style of poetry is heavily influenced by hip-hop. Did you ever want to be a rapper?

I think everyone wanted to be a rapper in some form or fashion. I feel like somehow or some way these were like my generation’s heroes, the rappers, so you would emulate them. So yeah I did get a lot of my style from rappers. Did I ever want to be a rapper and sell a lot of records? No, I was pretty real with myself and when I found poetry I found the perfect place for me to play my position as an artist. I was like this what I’m going to be. I’m going to have the aspirations and work ethic that these rappers have but I’m not going to be that at all. My goal is not to sell records, my goal is to do what poets do, and to carry that tradition and to carry it well, and hopefully find new places. Cause one of the biggest goals for me is transcending poetry – to the world – in all mediums.

Have you seen the film? What did you think about it?

I haven’t seen it but that’s the kind of freedom that you have to give the filmmakers. If you’re gonna have a creative thought or a negative thought about it then you shouldn’t see it. If you allow these people to come into your life and give the world their version of your story then the world needs to know that it’s their version of your story, even if it’s good or bad. And I trust that they were trying their best to make a great film and the reaction will come back after the people see it. That’s all I can really do. I mean you can’t get involved with someone else’s process. They never got involved with my process and they were always around the plays I would do. They never ever gave me a note so I didn’t want to give them a note. I just wanted to see what their film would be. I take this as a legacy piece more than anything to be honest. People might be happy that there’s this documentary about me but it’s more like a legacy for my children. A legacy for my readers who can go to something visually as well as the literary stuff I do or the plays I do; they can go to an actual film now. All the great artists I know have documentaries – whether it’s good or bad – it doesn’t matter, cause you get to see a piece of their lives. Like H.H. Thompson has a great documentary. Charles Bukowsky and Piri Thomas have amazing documentaries. It’s really a legacy piece for the artists.

Update us on what’s happened since the film ended.

Nothing has really happened, outside of me earning more respect in the world that I work in. Instead of having no Latinos reach out to me, I got Remezcla reaching out to me and that’s really good. But it’s all about work, it’s not about surprising no one anymore. It’s more about consistency and cranking the work out because that’s what real writers do. I don’t wanna feel special with one piece, I want to feel ordinary with a lot of pieces.

Lemon is playing as part of DOC NYC, New York’s largest documentary film festival. The film premieres Friday, November 4 with Lemon, the directors, and Russell Simmons as invited guests. A repeat screening (without in person appearances) takes place on November 9, 2011.