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.