Sunday, April 12, 2015

How: An interview with Joan Metelerkamp

Joan Metelerkamp reading in Grahamstown, July 2014
Joan Metelerkamp is the author of several books of poems, including Stone No More, Requiem, carrying the fire and Burnt Offering. Her poems have been widely published in local and international anthologies, and she has taken part in readings and literary festivals in South Africa, Europe and America. She edited the South African poetry journal New Coin for some years and has also written poetry reviews and essays. She lives on a farm near Knysna. 

Joan’s eighth collection of poetry, Now the World Takes These Breaths, was  published by Modjaji Books in 2014. She was interviewed by Alan Finlay.

AF: I said I would do an interview with you for the Dye Hard Interviews blog. So here are my questions or statements that I hope you find okay-enough to respond to....

JM: Fine – I woke this morning after horrific dreams (I don’t think connected with this) but with a whole long essay worked out with my responses. Now, after doing this and that, mainly house-work and procrastination of other tasks, I’ve forgotten everything! Can’t even remember what track I was on. I think this happens in writing of poems all the time – “it’s okay/ it can go”. Obviously one can’t live with an obsessive anxious holding on to everything. An “irritable reaching after fact and reason” …But unless the poem is made it doesn’t exist (obviously); all those unwritten wonders are NOTHING.

Well, we had this discussion before. I don't think I agree entirely. Sometimes I can feel happy that I “wrote” a poem, but I don't get to write it down. I think that poem exists too. Maybe just for me. It's a bit like playing piano for yourself – there is a sense of audience, even a strong sense of imagined audience, but nothing is getting recorded, and no-one is listening.

For me there really is a distinction between a crafted object, a work that stands, and the composition in the mind. (Maybe this has to do with my being a woman and a materialist!  Maybe it feels like this to me because my imaginary audience is so demanding?)  And about playing the piano to connect with yourself – isn’t that more like writing a poem and putting it away? Or writing versions of poems? Or reading a poem aloud once and destroying it?

It's really the process that I find reassuring, I think. In a way it reminds me, or re-connects me: I can do this! But yes, the question of audience – or even the complex or neurosis of audience. I was thinking of how to describe your writing, and I thought of a “folding outwards”. You write: “not so much that I've wasted my life but that it unfolds”. I feel like there is a tension in the emotional spaces your poems create, of a letting go, but also of a turning back. Like paper being folded, but outwards. The paper in that sense can go on forever, the “unreaming” can go on forever, even though it is being folded. I think this can also be felt in your style of writing, its strong sense of thinking in the immediate. At the level of narrative, the book is about letting go of your children, your space as a mother, as it was, and who you are left with when that happens.

Yes, though I hope that the book is only “about” the most obvious narrative. Except in the sense of cycle – round and round “about”. There are narrative elements, but the poems make a  formal cycle, as in an old ritualistic dance-circle; so this would be the in and out, folding unfolding, forward and back that you pick up.  So the “story” is an old old story! It refers back and forward. The folding, relating to death, extinction,  is also in the rhinoceros image – “like folded rhinoceros    we collapse/ in what’s left    of the shade”. Of course, Persephone went to the kingdom of death and back again…in that myth of cycle, which is a central referent in my book, there is the hope that Earth continues, will continue. It’s not just about a journey to individual not being.  But this is the central terror – that everything will disappear into nothing.  Even the sun dies etc. 
       Would it have helped knowing it
       was all a story as ancient as ever?  I forgot
       I didn’t know.  I still had to live it.
       I still had to have it all crushed out.
       I still had to find women to turn to, to laugh about it…..

I am curious – thinking of Sharon Olds, and her personal poems about her children or family, and what she said about writing them – how do others in your family receive your poetry? Because you are not the centre of everything, of course, and they have their lives too.

Yes, of course! But the lyric poet very often speaks from her “centre” her own “interior” – her feelings, thoughts are made in poems – it’s how a poet thinks best, isn’t it? Even a novel, although the socio-political, character-based construction that it is,  often refers to particular people…I’m thinking much further back than Olds, or before her Plath, but of Virginia Woolf …and now I’m jumping forward again - do you know the Stevie Smith “story of a story”?

No, I don't think so. Can you share it?

I think it may be in her volume Me Again – but basically it’s a story about having written a story based on friends who took umbrage; as far as I remember Stevie Smith said “but this is as true as I can make it even if you don’t feel flattered”... The people closest to me in this book knew that I was writing it for them so I think they were ok with it. They know that part of me, at least, is a poet.  Poetry may seem central in the book, but I think the book is also quite clear that it isn’t the only thing that matters! They also know that I know “there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle” (Marianne Moore).  In other words, I would hope that the book opens out as much as it closes in. I would hope that it might speak to other people, including those close, rather than exposing them.

Yes, I like this idea. This is something I find difficult when it comes to publishing. I want to speak to people close to me, but in a public way. I think your poetry pulls the reader into the personal in such a vigorous way it makes it necessarily public. 

This is a complex question of course that I’ve wrestled with. This is what “no wonder” deals with – Woolf’s “angel in the house”, the internal voice that urges her to speak and behave as those around her expect and whom Woolf advises the woman writer to kill... but it’s not only writers who deal with this angel’s voice I was saying...  We hurt other people even while we are trying to do what is best for them – everyone does.  We hurt those me most love – but surely it’s the definition of psychopathy to try to hurt those you supposedly love? (I don’t see suicide as an aggressive action against anyone, by the way).  Also, I don’t believe that old adage “what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you”…that’s bullshit in my experience. If you have won the Pulitzer Prize and published many tens of thousands of copies of your books (as Olds has done) does this make a difference?  I don’t know.

I suspect with that kind of “publicity”, at some level they will have to reject (or kill) the parent-poet...

I’ll give you a concrete example: at the launch of the book I read the title poem.  I was anxious.  The poem as you know is about an horrific unnatural natural death. Some of the people involved in that incident were at the launch, but others had  already read the book and given me confidence in their responses. I hoped it would be received as a tribute, and it was!   What do you do about the earth or sea that swallows those close to you first and then eventually you. Sometimes there is literally nothing to be done. You can only do everything you can do.  Sometimes you literally have to save your own life. What can a poem do?

Since your first book you have been negotiating the burdened or “over-weightiness” of the patriarchal voice in poetry, of deciding what was okay, which stopped so much from being written in South African poetry.

Yes.  I could go on at great length about this.  There are many different approaches – I think we’ve covered a few of the issues.  But behind this is the figure of the judge who is also the critic and authority and who says “how could you!”  in the voices of the book-club women or “gossip girls” you live amongst, the contemporary “angel in the house”, instead of “how could you” as in the real teacher who looks for new ways or at least ways to break old crippling habits. The negative side; as opposed to the positive prototype.  And it goes back to the point about hurting others…well.  I’m not an historian nor sociologist nor... jurist nor philosopher nor psychologist…nor scholar! I’d have to go by way of the poet and talk about my own experience/ feelings/ intuitions/ thoughts … If you want another example from the book of wrestling directly with the issue of authority its “Confession”.  Is it the poet/speaker who has to “hold her eyes open” however hard this is and “give” and “forgive” and confess” and ask for forgiveness? Or does she say no, the choice (whatever the choice is) is “for giving”.

Do you paint?

I don’t paint.  I wish I did. 

I though at some point you said you did. Maybe you said you wanted to...

Probably. And this goes back to the first point – you can do a drawing course and come home all fired up seeing horizontals, verticals, diagonals, tripping on the curves and moving lines outside, the colours and planes of the wheat free fields you drive through, experiencing in a new way…but if you don’t make that drawing, where is it? But I suppose I don’t wish it enough to have done it!  I did wish to be an actor – but I failed at that – I worked for three years when I was young but I couldn’t take one of the central aspects of acting at the start of a career – sitting around in the dressing-room, and doing very small roles.  Also I couldn’t take Pretoria and the performing arts council who employed me, nor,  in the early eighties, the alternative world of Joburg and touting myself to an agent. The other “medium” or “form” I’ve flirted with but haven’t cracked at all because I haven’t spent enough time and/or energy on it is the essay.  And this also has to do with being scared off of that by academe. Another failed career… another story.

Do you feel South African poets could bring more of other disciplines into their poetry? So poets are busy with poets and words – and someone like Willem Boshoff pulls the carpet from under our feet, because no-one who is a “poet” is looking at concrete or visual poetry – at least not at that level. Why not? Is the idea of being a poet in this country too narrow? Sometimes it feels that the problem lies in poetry as the starting point. Start with another art, and lead into poetry to make poetry alive. I am thinking of a couple of things here, but also a comment Robert [Berold] made about Kobus Moolman's latest book, that he has introduced dramatic elements into it.

I think it probably depends on temperament, and changes of life, don’t you think?  I think there are many and varied kinds of poem in South Africa.  I don’t know if it’s a matter of where you start, but at some point you have to keep going, practicing poems. If you don’t develop as a poet you may as well stop – and I think that’s more of the issue.  What’s the incentive to keep going?

In the last part of the book, I felt a sense of boredom, of you expressing boredom with your poetic project. It might be exhaustion. I am thinking of moments like: “all my lack of clarity. irritability./depressiveness./forgetfulness/what the fuck/ we're ok”. Perhaps this is resignation? To loss, to life. I am thinking here of your mother's suicide too. Of how difficult it must be for someone to leave.

I don’t understand the last part of this comment. Difficult for who to leave? (Are you saying it must be difficult for my daughter to leave because my mother committed suicide? – but then my mother’s mother did too…)

Sorry, Joan. Here I am reading into your work I think...

Well, I think you’re maybe intuiting something important, and anyway we always read from our own lives. But maybe you could spell out exactly what you mean – what specifically in the poem/s are referring to?  I think your suggestion is that the very fierce holding of the mother, seen from the daughter’s perspective, could be crippling.  Very difficult to leave because of that feeling of responsibility to the mother? Of being the mother’s emotional centre and so it’s scary in case the mother falls apart – ultimately kills herself?  I think that’s the shadow of your question, and it is really that shadow that I hope the poem is taking on squarely.  That is part of the Demeter/ Persephone myth.  In fact it’s the centre of the myth, and of every mother/daughter relationship.  But I do think the poem is taking on these issues and coming through to acceptance – (also boredom and exhaustion).  The poem “Daughter” maybe clarifies:
              Now that I see
                    how in her own life
                    she is,  in immanence,  not about
              to be,
                    in being
             on the other side of the earth
             she is
                    married to her own life
             as only she can be
            my daughter –
           how could I have loved her
                 too closely –
           how could I ever have loved
                  my mother too closely.


I’m not saying the poem makes one statement: there is ambiguity about statement and question in the last lines.  (The reader will know from, or find out from  “No wonder” that the speaker’s mother and grandmother “took the gun …put in their hands and fired it”).  That’s if you have to limit the speaker.  But there’s ambiguity about who the speaker is – is she daughter or mother? Perhaps both.  The poem, like all the others in the sequence/cycle is a sonnet – one of the effects is to set up an expectation of some “conclusion’ to each poem, which is subverted.   Now you have it, now you don’t. Of course sons have to leave too, as the Ur poems remind us, and as the poem that follows “Daughter” in my book acknowledges.  I mean “Son”. As for exhaustion and boredom – I think they’re fairly typical sensations or feelings for late-fifty-somethings. In my case it certainly does have to do with that eternal question which can’t be separated from a depressive syndrome: what for? In “Burnt Offering” I had to remind myself that isn’t the question, the only real question is “how”. But I think this part of the poem is saying too that what I’m exhausted with is self-admonishment and caring about lack of perfection. It’s boring. So yes I’m depressive forgetful irritable – so what? (– “but now/ even the things that irritate me/I have begun to forget” – for me the poem is also a bit playful and light! )  

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Catfish McDaris: an old-school outlaw

Catfish McDaris’s most infamous chapbook is Prying, with Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski. His best readings were in Paris at the Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore and with Jimmy ‘the ghost of Hendrix’ Spencer in NYC on 42nd St. He’s done over 20 chaps in the last 25 years. He’s been published by New York Quarterly, Slipstream, Pearl, Main St. Rag, CafĂ© Review, Chiron Review, Zen Tattoo, Wormwood Review, Great Weather For Media, Silver Birch Press, and Graffiti Kolkata. He’s been nominated for 15 Pushcarts, the Best of Net in 2010 and 2013, he won the Uprising Award in 1999 and won the Flash Fiction Contest judged by the US Poet Laureate in 2009. He’s recently been translated into French, Polish, Swedish, Arabic, Bengali, Tagalog, and Esperanto. His 25 years of published material is in the Special Archives Collection at Marquette Univ. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has also recently been published in New Coin, South Africa. His latest collection is Thieves of the Wind, with Kolkata poet and publisher Subhankar Das. 

DH: Perhaps an obvious first question revolves around your first name – Catfish. For me it conjures up images of the Mississippi, of delta blues and Mark Twain characters – so, how did you get the name Catfish? 

CM: Dave (Low Dog) Reeve, editor of Zen Tattoo took some of my poems, I told him I’d like to quit working for the Post Office in Milwaukee and start a catfish farm. He knew Bukowski slightly. This was about 94 and the name stuck. My sincere study of aquatic farming became just another unfulfilled dream. I started writing protest letters to newspapers, then I wrote a western novel (unpublished). I went to a poetry read and thought why not. I had lots of crazy fun reading and getting printed and meeting new people.

You have published quite a few titles, over 20, mainly chapbooks rather than full collections. I prefer chapbooks of poetry over thick volumes, there is a sense of intimacy or even of immediacy to a chapbook than a full collection doesn’t have. Did you go the chapbook route by choice?

I’m not exactly sure how many chapbooks I’ve done. I’ve always mixed poems with fiction, to me it’s all about storytelling. I have no academic credentials to get some big publishing house to print me. If Black Sparrow or City Lights would’ve come along and said let’s do it, I would have. On the other hand I’ve never self-published my own work. I figure if you can’t find a small press publisher, then your work must suck. I wouldn’t even venture a guess at how many small press publishers exist in US because they start and fold so quickly. There are university presses mostly from their English Dept. If you have no talent you won’t make it no matter where you live. With the web everything is international and in the blink of an eye.   

You had a chapbook published with Bukowski and Jack Micheline, called Prying. Bukowski is clearly an influence on your work – did you ever meet him? Did you ever meet Micheline?

I never met Bukowski, I’m sort of glad I didn’t. I consider him and Micheline geniuses, but I’ve seen films where Buk was mean to women and that behaviour pisses me off. I never met Jack either, except we became great pen-pals. I bought some of his paintings and chapbooks. He sent me poems of his and 4 unpublished poems from Buk from 74. Jack told me to write some nasty stories and find a publisher. That’s how Prying was born. Buk was dead by then and Mich died soon after.
                
I first encountered your name when you interviewed the poet Charles Plymell. Plymell is usually associated with the Beats but he doesn’t like being given that label and is quite critical of the Beats. There has been a bit of a Beat industry on the go – a Kerouac industry, a Burroughs industry, a Ginsberg industry. Would I be right in saying there is also a Bukowski industry? What are your feelings about these industries?

I met Plymell through being published together in the small press scene. The extensive interview I did with him was for the Chiron Review, it sort of opened my door to the Beatniks. Plymell stayed with us in Milwaukee in 96 on his way to meet Ginsberg and Burroughs. He introduced me to them through the mail and I got signed books from them. Two years later, in 98, I went to a 3-day Beatnik read in Cherry Valley, NY where Plymell lives and Ginsberg had a farm. I read with Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, Ray Bremser, Janine Pommy Vega, Andy Clausen, David Amram, David Church, Claude Pelieu, Charles Plymell, Gordon Ball, and lots of other Beatniks and musicians such as Grant Hart. I think the Bukowski industry may overshadow all the Beatniks put together, but who really knows. The Beatniks and Bukowski are being overexposed. I prefer Buk over Kerouac any day. We need to create the next big move; we have the talent and technology. We don’t have to go on the road or live in a cardboard box, unless we feel like it. Caves are great; I spent almost three months in one. 

There is another label being used – outlaw poet. Do you consider yourself an outlaw poet? Do we need labels?

I don’t think we need labels, but I think we will never get around them. I have broken many laws in my 60 years. I’ve been in jail, never prison. If being an outlaw poet means you can write about things outside the law, then hell yea I’m an outlaw. I wasn’t in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry unfortunately. That was fat anthology from 1999 put out by Thunder’s Mouth Press, dedicated to Jack Micheline. I was told to send work to it by Tommy Tucker from Bum Rush in NY in 98, I forgot. Alan Kaufman edited it with SA Griffin, it has all the outlaws except Bukowski. I have been to Billy the Kid’s grave, though. Since I grew up in Clovis, New Mexico, that wasn’t far from Billy the Kid country. He supposedly killed 21 men before he was 21. Billy is buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico where they kept Geronimo prisoner. Watch Sam Peckinpah’s movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Bob Dylan is in it, he’s a knife-throwing expert and he does the soundtrack, notably Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.   

Apart from poetry you also write flash fiction. When did you start writing flash fiction and why? Is flash fiction not in some ways a variation/extension of the prose poem?

It is all a story or a tale. Some mags want flash fiction some want poetry. It’s the same animal to me.

 What music do you like?

I like Hendrix, Prince, Satriani, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Santana. I listen to lots of Mexican and French music from my lady. The funny thing is I don’t hardly ever listen to music while I’m alone or writing.

You live in Milwaukee – that’s a city I have always associated with the TV sitcom Happy Days. What is the poetry and arts scene like in Milwaukee?

There are lots of breweries here. After the big Chicago fire, 1871, all the beer barons moved to Milwaukee because of Lake Michigan and fresh river water. We have a bronze Fonz statue, every few years the Happy Days folks come here. There are lots of good poets here. Antler and lots of academic poets, there are lots of reading venues. Also slams and rap contests. The art scene is super, lots of bohemians and a world-class art museum. Chicago is 90 minutes away and it is a great art and poetry city. In Milwaukee our art museum is right on Lake Michigan, It was designed by a Spaniard and opens its wings like the one in Sydney, Australia. I prefer paintings, but there are sculptures by Rodin. I like Bonnard, Caillebotte, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Monet, O’Keeffe, and Renoir - just to name a few in the permanent collection. Some of the local artists are great, there are many galleries and exhibits. I love Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, I also like Robert De Niro Sr.

What is the state of poetry publishing in the US as a whole? I should imagine that, like elsewhere in the world, sales are pretty bad. Here in South Africa fewer publishers are willing to take on poetry. Is it the same in the US? I see a lot of poets are now turning to self-publishing through print on demand initiatives such as Lulu.com.

Sales are terrible for poetry. People would rather buy a beer or tasteless hamburger than a chapbook. The market is so flooded (not just in the US, but worldwide) the old 'you buy mine, I’ll buy yours' is murder. I just mailed a chapbook to Quebec and it was almost $9.00 postage. I don’t understand print on demand, how can a publishing company give you a free ISBN (they usually cost $50) and print a perfect-bound or even hard-bound book and then put them for sale online and you just buy a few, or however many you feel like? I haven’t self-published any of my stuff, but friends with more computer knowledge than me have. This is crazy. I am old school, we used to send our work out with SASEs and wait by the mailbox with crossed fingers. Now you meet people all over the world in the blink of an eye. Maybe the Kindle will abolish printed books. I hope I don’t live to see that.

You started up a blog-based journal, ppigpenn, which contains mainly interviews and poetry. I think it is important that poets start up these initiatives, to create a creator awareness of what is happening in poetry, whether locally or internationally. What are your thoughts on this?

In some ways I think it’s cool to connect with so many people all over the world. On the other hand what makes me so special that I should be able to judge other writers’ work and decide if they are worthy to be published on ppigpenn. I try never to reject anyone, I may ask them to hit me with something harder, but I turn no one away. I’m lucky now that I have a partner watching my back, Michy McDannold from the Literary Underground.

You have just published a joint volume of poetry with Kolkata poet and publisher Subhankar Das, called Thieves of the Wind. A couple of years back you published another collaborative volume, with the Australian poet Ben John Smith, called Dancing Naked on Bukowski’s Grave. There was also the earlier collaborative volume with Bukowski and Micheline. Some publishers here in SA have done collective volumes of poetry – say, four or six poets in one volume – rather than single collections. What is the advantage of collaborative works, other than the sharing of resources? 
            
I consider Subhankar and Ben John top-notch writers from a totally different background and country. With the dismal sales in the small press world maybe having a brother along might help. Being printed with Bukowski and Micheline never hurt, but it sure never put a dime in my pocket. If you have to depend on writing for a living, I suggest go the Outlaw Poetry route. Rob a few banks now and then.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Khulile Nxumalo: Seeking new ways of saying

Khulile Nxumalo was born in Diepkloof, Soweto, in 1971. He finished school at Waterford Kamhlaba, Swaziland, and went to University of Cape Town, University of Natal and Wits University. His first poetry collection, ten flapping elbows, mama, was published by Deep South in 2004. His second 
collection, fhedzi, was published by Dye Hard Press in 2013. His work has appeared in several literary journals in South Africa, Canada, the UK and the US. Nxumalo has twice won the DALRO award for poetry.  He also participated in the LitNet My Generation project, with his contribution ‘The train goes on coal’.

An extensive interview with Khulile Nxumalo by Alan Finlay was published in New Coin, and is available here.

DH: When did you start writing poetry?

KN: I started writing, playing around with the poetry we were studying in high school. But it was only when I got to university in Cape Town that I really starting engaging and applying myself to the craft. At school it was people like John Donne, Milton, the sonnets of Shakespeare and Wordsworth. I think it was being exposed to poetry other than classical English that ignited interest in trying to write. At university as part of English we studied Eliot, Blake, Frost, ee cummings, Sylvia Plath etc. I also took courses by Prof Kelwyn Sole on Oral Literature and in African Literature, but by then I had been exposed to Okigbo, Soyinka, Jack Mapanje, Sipho Sephamla, Serote, Kgositsile and Mattera.

What poets have been your main influences? What South African poets do you particularly like?

Mongane Serote has been the most impactful influence. I try to read South African poetry widely, mostly in the journals that still exist. The poets I like are too numerous to mention. Also, one tends to be touched or affected by a poem, and it can even be from a lesser-known poet or writer. Seitlhamo Motsapi introduced me to the work of Kamau Brathwaite, and that has been another long-standing line of influence.

In the blurb to your first collection, ten flapping elbows, mama, you wrote:  “I what I call psycho-narration, I try to write beyond the understanding that ‘inside of one’s head’ and ‘the objective world’ are distinct worlds. This is a form I have grown to love more since I started preferring the long poem format that sits on a conversational tone. It’s a multi-vocal way of writing or telling stories in a less authoritative way, a kinda voice democracy in the poem.” For me, the long psycho-narration poems have a montage effect and I am reminded of TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. Can you tell us more about how you came to psycho-narration? 

The poetry I was trying to write at high school reflected and imitated stuff like rhyming schemes of Petrachan sonnets, and the tight barriers of language in the form. When I started to work in the long form, the writing achieved a conversational tone. In another phrase, the poetry loosened. Psycho-narration is about writing as of you are narrating your own psychology. It becomes interesting when you try to imagine a fluid barrier between the objective and the subjective, in that the stability of the “I” persona becomes affected, and voice takes on more interesting dimensions. Our generation of writers has to contend with a less certain country and world, that is if you are thinking of the post-apartheid era, and that is part of the context that makes for searching for new ways to say things.

I find the voice of your new collection, fhedzi, to be more singular, more unified. There is a sense of one, personal voice.

I think fhedzi is influenced by jazz and other musical rhythms more than ten flapping elbows, mama and that tends to unify how poems are elaborated, and creates unity of emotion. Even though I had set out to write an angry book about the ghost of my absent Venda father, I ended up with material that has a stronger sense of self in it, and I imagine this is what you mean by “personal voice”. I think the strong application that Alan Finlay brought to the editing also makes the book more unified, as we cut out quite a lot of stuff, and we were open to new versions of poems that might have appeared differently at another time.

Going back briefly to the blurb for ten flapping elbows, mama, you wrote: “If we can go beyond rational thought – or even the idea that rational thought is a reflection of reality – then anything can happen.”  Do you still have such a view of the potential of poetry, or has it modified in the past nine years?

Yes I still do. It is not just for poetry but for the act of imagination itself. Some of my concerns at the time of making that statement were from realising that there is richness in that I, for a number of years, had imagined, conceived, created and uttered realities in languages other than English. At the time, discourse analysis and deconstruction were in vogue in literary studies, and I guess some of that filtered into how I theorised about my writing.

Ten flapping elbows, mama contains a “proemdrama” called “Craftin’”, and fhedzi contains the choreo-poem “The Melville Plenoptic”.  These are not plays in the accepted sense, and not quite dramatic poems either. What is your experience with the theatre? 

Well, you will not believe, but I acted in plays like Noddy, Pinocchio, Aladdin as part of Johannesburg Children’s Theatre. That was at the time when experiments of integration between black children in the townships and white kids in the suburbs were increasingly taking place. Almost around the time of the scrapping of the Group Areas Act. I developed a deep interest in the theatre from then, and went to see a lot of plays at the Market Theatre. Currently I am studying for a master’s in dramatic arts, where as part of my practical examination I will stage a piece that is a mixture of both “Craftin’” and “The Melville Plenoptic”.

You have also done some work in film I remember seeing a short documentary about Staffrider  that you made with artist Tracey Rose. Have you ever been involved in music?

I listen to music ‒ all kinds really. I do wish I had learnt to play the cello. I mess around on the guitar, for the simple three-chord type of tunes. Before working at the SABC, I was directing documentaries. Among others, I directed a documentary following the daughter of Credo Mutwa in a search to find out why their house was burnt in 1976, and collaborated with Tracey Rose as part of the Chimurenga Digital library where I reminisce about the time when the Market Precinct was buzzing with activity, and poetry and writing were driven by COSAW initiatives, while bemoaning that I never got a chance to be published in Staffrider.

What is your opinion of contemporary South African poetry? Are you optimistic about the future of poetry in South Africa?

I think the journals must continue to exist for South African poetry to maintain a sense of being alive. That is how I have also kept going in between collections. I think we need a radio programme that focuses on poetry,that could also have a digital existence. I am optimistic as most of the poets, even those from the generations older than us, still continue to publish. I remember the last issue of Kotaz where Mxolisi Nyezwa focused on a number of poems in isiXhosa. As a country with so many languages, these must be reflected in the written and published poetry.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Erik Vatne: In service to the poem

Photo: Dylan Thompson
Erik Vatne is a poet, visual artist and publisher born in the US. He was educated at the Barnstable Academy, Bard College (BA), and Trinity College Dublin (MA). His books of poetry include Endings (Round Lake Press, 1991), Cartographies of Silence (Station Hill Press, 2009), Don Scotus on his Sickbed (Burning Apple Press, 2011), XXIII Epistles (Graffiti Kolkata, India, 2011), Mormon Heroin (Burning Apple Press, 2012) and the trilogy Words in Search of a  Meaning (Burning Apple Press, 2012). He has lived in Mexico, Norway, Iceland, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Ireland. He divides his time between New Jersey, US and Dublin, Ireland. 

DH: Music plays a big part in your life – you often post music clips on your Facebook page, and there are references to music throughout your writing. In Words in Search of a Meaning, for example, there is a prose poem about Freddy Mercury and another poem is dedicated to Ian Curtis. In the notes to Mormon Heroin, you include additional poems which you call ‘bonus tracks’.

EV: Yes, music is important. When I began using FB I used the medium as a public online Commonplace Book that would include music/video/art/poetry, etc.  My dream job, since I was a kid, was to be a late-night music DJ so I guess it’s my way of playing late-night DJ when I post songs and lyrics. Even as a child of two or three, my parents said I was listening to the lyrics of songs and they were always equally important as the music; whereas I noticed this wasn’t the case for many of my friends. I don’t think most poets of our generation talk about this enough. For our generation rock lyrics were our first ‘poetry’… Or were the fault lines/maps that eventually lead to poetry… In my case, it was Bob Dylan, arguably one of America’s finest poets; so the simple answer is music is vitally important to my life and work … In Pater’s words, “All art aspires to the conditions of music”.

I constructed Mormon Heroin as a rock opera … Whether I succeed or fail I don’t know but besides the Epistles it’s the work I am most proud of. Even if I know it fails in places I am happy I was able to release a ‘director’s cut’ of the book. There is some interest from another publisher in bringing out a selection of the poems called Strategies of Desire the title of one of the poems.  

One of my teen heroes Pete Townsend’s Quadrophenia and Pink Floyd’s The Wall served as templates for the book, which is why I include so many notes; as well as bonus tracks, which I thought was an interesting idea and was a private nod to my ex-wife and her thinking my rock/music geek obsession with remastered albums and liner notes, etc was endearing.

This brings me back to my childhood, when buying a much anticipated album was a big event one I was happy to read Patti Smith write about in Just Kids halcyon pre-teen and teen days spent not just listening to an album over and over but reading the liner notes and looking at photos etc was, for our generation, a magical experience.  Finally, maybe I’m just talking about my experience, but I feel many poets of our generation that I’ve met and grew up on rock music are frustrated rock stars because we know how much pop and rock music arguably drained the universal creative energy from the poem-source; so I'm always thinking and feeling musically when I compose poems.

Some of your poetry – I am thinking particularly of Mormon Heroin – comes across as ‘confessional’. You have written about the collapse of your marriage, hospitalisation for breakdowns, as well as alcohol and drug abuse. Poets such as Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton have been hailed as ‘confessional poets’, but would you also regard your work as confessional? I imagine you would reject the categorisation. 

Yes, I would reject the categorisation of ‘confessional’ poet. This is a term created by critics to define and label what they considered ‘new’ trends in contemporary American poetry. What I find ironic is that in the cases of some of our most ‘confessional’ poets, like Bukowski and Ginsberg
for example, Ginsberg’s ‘Ego Confession’ or ‘Please Master’, you can’t get more confessional then that  we don’t call them ‘confessional’ poets. I mean, was the Renaissance poet George Gascoigne a confessional poet? I think one could make that argument; he’s one of my favorite poets and a bigger influence on The Epistles than Ted Berrigan even though I owe a big debt to Frank O’Hara for opening up my work to be able to write a book like Mormon Heroin, etc and, yes, Berrigan is also important because I often employ a cut and paste method in my writing practice; but I didn’t really get into Berrigan until I began writing The Epistles; if anything; I would say the Epistles owe more to Kerouac and Shakespeare and visual artists like Rauschenberg and Basquiat.

The confessional poets I know well are John Berryman, and specifically Robert Lowell. At one time Plath was an important poet to me and Arial remains one of the most important works of the latter half of the 20th century; but I haven’t really looked at her work in years. Ted Hughes, and not Plath, was one of my earliest influences and I imitated him for years when I was a teenager but I didn’t have the experience or maturity to process the archetypes and symbols I received in dreams and visions as Hughes did so brilliantly. As for Sexton, I have to admit I never cared for her work, but I should read her again.

With regard to Mormon Heroin, you’re correct that it contains a wider selection of autobiographical or, if one likes, ‘confessional’ poems:  those poems are quite direct, naked and raw, but that’s only a part of the larger apocalyptic vision of book that’s ultimately about technology. Specifically, the collective madness of technology that could also lead to the human machine breaking down and succumbing to our over medicated society.

To give one short example from Mormon Heroin; in the poem, ‘Descending Minor Thirds (Orpheus in The Underworld)’ I write, “America is a self-medicated system/ Organism/ On an eternal IV drip/ Shuffling down the hall/ In hospital gown/ Satori...” In this regard the personal pronoun or speaker becomes a microcosm that mirrors the shadow side of the collective unconscious of American neurosis. On a personal note I’d like to mention that I haven’t had a drink or illegal drug in 20 years, but I believe all drugs, including heroin, should be decriminalised. 

Many of your poems employ a short line. Some  – such as in Cartographies of Silence – are short in length, while others go onto several pages. Stylistically your work reminds me at times of Robert Creeley, but you have indicated your discomfort with the term ‘minimalism’.

I perceive my work as a poet is to be a conduit in service to the poem. In other words, my responsibility is to get out of the way of the poem and let it speak for itself; to say its own way into the world. Keep in mind Cartographies was composed in 1995-1996 and Mormon Heroin over ten years later. I often struggle with my tendency towards boredom and restlessness and the fear of repeating myself. In short, I have a restless mind and imagination and that’s why disparate influences which would include everything from one-word poems, concrete poetry, to the Romantics and everything in between as long as it speaks to me on a personal level can have an influence on my life and work. I consider my connection to certain poets as serious relationships, love affairs, and marriages; sometimes one-night stands, but for the most part long-term relationships. 

Cartographies of Silence was composed when I was about four years into serious Zen Buddhist study and practice. I had taken Buddhist refuge vows with my son Dylan. Prior to Cartographies I composed a chapbook of poems under a different name that I later destroyed. The reason I did this was because the poetry I was writing at that time began to sound more and more like bad translations from Japanese and Chinese Zen poets. Since then I’ve seen many American poets fall into this trap. Cartographies was a way for me to use a short line and write short epiphany-like poems but for the first time break free from what I felt was a consuming Buddhist influence on my poetry.

It’s interesting you should mention Creeley. I might raise eyebrows by making this statement but I’ve been reading Creeley for at least twenty years and sometimes I love his work and think he’s a genius and other times I think his poetry is just awful. I know Creeley is supposed to have one of the best ‘ears in the business’ as we say, but I seem to have a love/ hate relationship with his work at times. I love his very short, ‘minimalist’ poems but sometimes think his rhyming poems amount to little more than bad doggerel. Perhaps it’s me? It took me many years to truly ‘hear’ a poet like Robert Duncan and when I did it was, as these experiences are, ecstatic.

One thing I do admire about poets like Creeley is that they produced a very large prolific body of work that unmistakably never deviates from their voice. To use a rock example, I once wrote an essay about David Bowie’s obsession with Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. It was my thesis that Bowie as shape shifter, chameleon, and actor was always searching for the authentic and that’s what he saw and felt in the music of Reed and Iggy Pop. This is not criticism, especially since I love all three artists and Reed and especially Bowie have been just as important as Blake or Shelley or Borges or Jack Spicer. I tend to be very catholic in my tastes. I always hear my voice in everything I write but there’s no doubt I’m also more of a shape shifter and chameleon in my work, which would explain the many influences and changes of style, form, and content in my poems. This is why almost all of my books are intentionally different. Like Lot, I don’t want to look back.

In Words in Search of a Meaning, many of the poems deal with the issue of language powerful and evocative, but at the same time inadequate and deceptive. This was a problem that deeply preoccupied Artaud most of his life. 

I think you’ve summed up the question that’s behind every poem I write and that is: “What is language?” It doesn’t matter what I write. My obsession with language is always at the forefront of every poem and even painting.  This is where one would find the influence of Wittgenstein as well as my ongoing interest in speech and language disorders. In some ways I envy poets who don’t appear to ever question language, nor do I understand it. I could give you hundreds of examples of what I’m talking about, but at the moment I’m struck by the words of T. S Eliot that have always stayed with me from his poem ‘East Coker’, from Four Quartets: “So here I am, In the middle way, Having had twenty years/ Largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres ./ Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt/  Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure/  Because one has only learnt to get the better of words/  For the thing one no longer has to say, Or the way in which/  One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture/  Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate/  With shabby equipment/  Always deteriorating/  In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion...”

I don’t think we have enough room for me to get into my love for Artaud; but I can say I feel a very deep connection to Artaud’s work and to what I know of the man. As a student of psychology my personal belief is that his work transcends anything found in the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and yet no one has written more honestly, brutally and tenderly about various states of mental illness. And yet when I read Artaud I feel I’m reading a man who has complete control and command of the language; as well as a penetrating connection and understanding to his illness and the sickness of language what Burroughs referred to as the ‘language virus’ and the madness of industrial society.  I would direct readers to Clayton Eshleman’s essays and translations of Artaud’s work.

You have referred to your creation of action-poems, or word-paintings. You are also planning to publish a book of photographs. Tell us more about your artwork and its relation to your poetry. 

I owe a debt to who I consider one of the great geniuses of the century, Brion Gysin and my study of his life and work for being a final guide in destroying my ego-identification with myself as a poet. There is something rather preposterous about a grown man engaged in such work; don’t you think? And yet we don’t seem to have a choice; and as Bukowski said, “it’s still the best game going”. It remains a conundrum.

If anything, I consider myself a maker of things, a creator. I’ve constructed my life in a way that keeps me in a continual state of creative flux so that if I’m not writing poems, but have collected texts that lend themselves to paintings, I apply them to paintings. I work, at this stage after all these years almost entirely on instinct, intuition and faith in the process. There is no fear or doubt. If a poem doesn’t work it’s a small loss in the bigger picture; and few will care or notice anyway.

When I’m not painting or writing and need to disengage from those activities I’ll take photographs. This is when photography helps me get distance from language.  Poetry, painting and photography are part of the larger creative stew that is my life.

In the near future I would like to show my paintings and photographs; but I am just now ‘coming out of the closet’ as a visual artist and looking for the right gallery or venue to show my work. This year or next year I will be publishing a selection of my works on paper called The S.B Notebooks as well as a book of photographs called Garage.

Your notes section to Mormon Heroin is quite lengthy. There are also notes to Words in Search of a Meaning but not as much as in Mormon Heroin. I felt that the notes added considerably to the poems. Some people might argue against the use of notes, as they feel poetry should either explain itself or the reader should be free to decide for themselves. I think it depends on how the notes are used, by both writer and reader.

I struggled with this very question. Frankly, I feel notes are not important to the poems and that the poems should speak for themselves. If a poem needs a note to succeed then it has already failed. However, Mormon Heroin was a special and unique project. There are so many arcane and hermetic references in that work so I felt notes were necessary. On a personal level the notes were some of the most fun I’ve had with putting a book together. I feel as obsessive as they were they added a levity at times that helped me cope with the difficult process of putting together such a large collection. The notes are written for anyone who cares to read them but are not necessary but as I mentioned very specifically they were written for my second wife who, if we were together, would have probably asked me those questions. In a way, the notes are a farewell love letter to her memory. Finally, the notes were my secret wink to Eliot’s The Waste Land but I doubt I’ll repeat the experience.

When I look at your books I have three full-length volumes – Cartographies of Silence, Mormon Heroin and Words in Search of a Meaning – and then the two chapbooks, XXIII Epistles and Don Scotus. In the three full-length volumes I had a sense of a trilogy almost, but as you rightly point out, the poems in Mormon Heroin are very different from those in Cartographies and Words… I guess this is related to the history of the writing of the poems, and the history of their being published. For example, in Words…, published last year, there are some poems dating back to the 1980s.

This is a difficult question to answer. I don’t consider the three full-length volumes a trilogy but Words.…is a trilogy in that it contains three full-length books in one collection. For me publishing is a form of exorcism. I don’t feel I can release the poems or books from my body I would even consider it a somatic experience until they are published.

Once a poem or book is published I can move on and let go of it. Words.… contains poems from the '90s I chose to preserve. Unfortunately, for personal reasons, there are long gaps in my publishing history so even though Words.… and Mormon Heroin were published in the same year, 2012, they span twenty years of writing. The impetus for this now is almost the exact opposite of my previous ascetic approach to publishing modelled after Cavafy.  I now feel a greater sense of urgency to publish and exorcise these ghosts from the past and publish almost and the operative word is almost everything I write. I’ll leave the rest to readers, critics and history.

You have been studying psychoanalysis for some years, and you also have made references to teachers such as Krishnamurti, and you have also on occasion quoted from the gospels. I get a sense of searching, a quest. Is it a spiritual quest or a psychoanalytical one? Some might argue that those are the same.  

I’d say yes, they’re quite closely related. I have been a student of Jungian psychology and studied in Zurich but have had to put my studies on hold as I found it impossible to do so much creative work, run the press and continue my studies. I hope to resume them in the future when and if I achieve more balance in my life.

I’ve had many spiritual teachers including Jesus, Buddha, Krishnamurti, and Thich Nhat Hanh, H.H. the Dalai Lama, Shree Maa and Carl Jung, who I consider very much a surrogate father-figure.  I hesitate to use the term ‘spiritual seeker’ because that suggests that one is looking outside of oneself for what has always been present inside the human and divine heart. However, the search for home or the Odyssey quest is probably the trope that speaks most closely to my personal mythos. At the end of the day, though, I always return to reading poetry as a rite or ceremony that one could say is religious or spiritual.

You started up Burning Apple Press, and three of your books have been issued through to this imprint. Why did you start up your own press? What else besides your own work are you publishing through it?

It’s too bad we’re conducting this interview via email because I laughed when I read your question. The short and simple answer is I started Burning Apple Press because no one would publish a 422-page collection of poetry including 50 pages of notes called Mormon Heroin. A friend suggested I publish it myself and thus Burning Apple Press was born.

I also felt I had more freedom and control over my work and also didn’t have to go through the long waiting process and formalities of a very corrupt and cliquish American poetry publishing scene. I don’t see this more different than bands like Radiohead starting their own labels and putting out their own works. Or say Moby producing his own albums. Once I started Burning Apple Press I realised that it was also an opportunity for me to publish a great deal of my back catalogue but the end game was always to begin publishing beautifully designed and highly professional books that would introduce readers to poets whose work is in on the ‘outside’ of the looking glass.

Burning Apple Press is a labor of love and a non-profit company so we don’t have the resources or staff to publish as many titles as we would like but I hope we continue to grow and flourish in the coming years for exceptional ‘outsider’ artists and poets whose work I admire that have yet to be published.

For example, we just published a collection of poems Selling Heaven by the Irish poet Brendan McCormick, which is available through the publisher and Amazon. We plan on bringing out books of poetry and photography by other artists in the next year or two. I’ll probably only publish one or two more books written in 2007 and 2008 with Burning Apple Press and then resume my search for the right publisher of The Epistles.

I probably sound like a Luddite but I’ve never read an e-book on the computer or any kind of device. I know that many say book publishing is dying or almost dead but nothing can equal the feel and tactile, sensory, experience of holding a book in one’s hand.

  What are you busy with?

I’m an artist that’s always working on multiple projects. So I’m currently working on a collection of paintings which I call my ‘Italian Verb Series’. This is a series of paintings that use found texts from a book of Italian verbs. I just finished the last poem of 120 Epistles which I’ve been working on for nearly 10 years but like Berryman’s inability to stop writing Dream Songs I’ve written over 25 epistles this year even after completing the book. I consider that my life’s work, so I might be writing Epistles until the end of my writing life.

In between these works I continue to take photographs, make abstract paintings and large scale paintings with handwritten or stenciled texts.  I just began writing a new collection of ‘assembled’ poems which are very short and simple based on a textbook I’m studying on ‘Practical Chinese.’  These poems seem to be writing themselves and I am already well into the work and I just started it this month, but the book sat on a shelf for months before it finally ‘spoke’ to me and I took it out and thus the work begins all over again. This book won’t contain any notes.