Interview with PW Covington, veteran and Beat poet

1) You were stationed on the ground in Mogadishu. If you don’t mind, would you tell what this experience taught you about life? About government? About friendship? Most of all, does this ever factor into your poetry?

I was an Air Transportation Specialist in the Air Force, assigned to the 2nd Mobile Aerial Port Squadron, a specialized unit that established and conducted airlift operations in austere or hazardous environments. Mobile Aerial Porters were among the first military personnel of any nation, on the ground in Mogadishu, beginning in early December, 1992 as a vanguard of the UN famine relief and peacekeeping mission called OPERATION RESTORE HOPE. Our immediate tasking was to ensure that the airport was safe and able to be used by transport aircraft that would later bring both humanitarian relief supplies and the security forces necessary to ensure their distribution.

I was 18 years old at the time and had only been in the Air Force for about 6 months. The things I saw and did there are never far from my memory. Seeing human beings without even enough food to avoid starving, and knowing that it was a the breakdown of basic government services, combined with a “might makes right”, religiously fueled, over-armed, “strongman/warlord” culture that led to such suffering made me very grateful for the advantages that most in the rest of the world take for granted.

My experiences as a peacekeeper in Somalia led me to a complete rejection of all Deistic religious myth, an appreciation for those that serve others, especially when doing so involves great personal, kinetic, risk.  Some life-long friendships were forged with fellow squadron members. We were such a tiny, specially employed, group, that very few others, even in the military, and especially within the Air Force at the time, could understand or appreciate much of what we did or how we did it. We were about as autonomous as it is possible to be and still be members of a conventional military unit.

I learned that no matter how difficult a job is, when others are relying on you, you must do whatever needs to be done to ensure it is done. I learned to never accept “No” as an answer, and I learned that almost all of the things most people consider “necessities” are, actually, luxuries and creature comforts.

Themes from this period of my life do often work their way into my poetry, especially my earlier stuff.

 

2) You have said “Poets can be rock stars.” Define what you mean. Do you think America favors poetry less than other countries? The ratings appear to say so. What do you think will revive poetry’s popularity in the popular imagination?

Poetry is as popular as we make it. I have been lucky enough to read and perform my work across several Western states, and it’s rare to hit a town that doesn’t have a vibrant, Progressive, counter-cultural poetry or spoken word scene. I believe in the energy of an attentive, slightly intoxicated crowd. I believe that poets first need to take themselves seriously, then take their art seriously, then demand the same from others.

As performers we have a responsibility to those that come and hear what we have to say. Our competition is NOT other poets (FUCK Slam!)…our competition is the television, a ballgame, a night in bed with a lover, an evening at home alone with the cat. Whatever it is those folks in the audience gave up to come hear me, I better give them something back that is at least as valuable. I know my poems, I wrote the fucking things; I’m not reading for myself…I’m reading, hopefully, in a way that shows those listening the same respect they have shown me, by being present in the space and listening.

Poetry will be part of life, as long as there is life. Shit, even the cosmos has its own poetry. Some poor, confused, fuckers anthropomorphize this universal flow of poetry and name it “God”…Doesn’t matter what you call it, really. It’s going to be there, regardless.
For a long time, I didn’t care for that word; “poetry”…These days, I believe it is the very core of reality.

Poets as rockstars?

If you’ve got any soul or experience at all, and if you’re worth the time you spend in front of an audience, you’d BETTER understand how bad we NEED rockstar poets out there to salt this post-literate landscape.

 

3) You advertise yourself as an “uncensored Beat poet.” What is Beat poetry to you? How has it inspired you?
Beat is oatmeal, served at 3:30 in the morning, on a plastic, state prison, feeding tray. Beat is the number of hours it takes to panhandle enough money for a tank of gas in the Tucson Flying J parking lot. Beat is a night of three-hole sex with a hotel hookup, before going home at 6am and truly enjoying the embrace of your wife or girlfriend. Beat is four days and three nights, alone, in the Santa Fe wilderness with a half ounce of Sativa and a star chart.

Beat has never inspired me, but I have been letting it drive me around for the last couple of decades…since before I even knew who cats like Kerouac or Ginsberg even were. Beat, more than anything else, to me, is the freedom and permission I found within myself, to live and be, according to my own discoveries and understandings. It’s taken me to some scary and wondrous places, but it’s never left me without hope in whatever comes next.

 

4) Did you write poetry while in the service? What themes intrigued you, if so?
I spent a little over 23 months on active duty, before leaving the Air Force, under Honorable conditions, as a service connected disabled Veteran.

Almost every day of my military service was spent in an intensive, specialized, training environment, or deployed, working 12 hour days on high priority security or contingency operations.

I didn’t have much time to write….I was still doing a lot of research about the world, back in those days…lol

 

5) What has made you the most proud as a poet? What makes you feel accomplished?
Accomplishment, to me, is measured in community. I am incredibly honored by the respect and encouragement other writers and performers have extended me over the years.  I’m proud of the friendships, some decades old, that poetry has brought into my life. We stand in front of groups of people and expose ourselves beyond any mere physical nudity, night after night, year after year…in that setting, friendships and resentments form…hopefully it’s the friendships that last.

 

6) Let’s pretend you are talking to the latest generation of hipsters. What should they know about writing poetry?
Shave your fucking beard.
Wear clothes that fit properly.
Get off my lawn.
(No…not, really)

Read poetry, read prose, read translations, read The Bible, read the Koran, read smut, read maps, read the classics, read every section of a good newspaper, every day. Get rid of your television. Read. Read. Read.

Don’t worry about “writing poetry”…if you’re a poet, and you just keep reading, you’ll be scrawling out your own shit, soon enough. If you’re not, count your blessings.
Never use or employ poetry as a means to any end greater than a blow job or a quarter bag of weed. If you do, you’ll be disappointed and die a cold, bitter, shell of frustration.

 

7) What is your relationship to academia in general?
I have many dear friends that fund their writing habit by teaching and inspiring young minds.

 

8) When you are in doubt, is there a book or song you turn to? Is there a ritual you have to build your motivation to write? When do you write best?
I write best when I simply CANNOT NOT WRITE. Honestly, my jail and prison terms have been incredibly productive periods.

No real ritual, but I have found that a several hundred miles of multi-state highway, Bourbon from disposable, motel cups, and a bit of herbal combustion can sometimes shake something worth developing from somewhere inside, but, usually a phrase or a word or two will come to me in response to an overheard conversation, a news story on National Public Radio, a Facebook post.

Then, there there are those pieces that bust forth like a PRCA, prime-stock, bull at the Vegas finals…I couldn’t control that process if I tried.

You gotta either jump off, or hang on.

 

9) What spurred your novel Dear Elsa? What message were you giving to the reader?
The book pretty much answers those questions. Read it.

 

10) What is it like to travel and read poetry? What reactions do you get from audiences?
All kinds.
Travel is a tonic. I thrive on it.

 

11) What advice do you have about promoting yourself as a poet/writer?
Believe in yourself first.
Find people that you can learn from and study them like your art depends upon it. It does.
Believe in yourself first.
Never be afraid of forming creative relationships with fellow performers, regardless of genre or discipline. Suffer no fools, but accept anyone that wants to listen to or read your stuff. Respect anyone that sits down in front of you.
Believe in yourself first.
Believe in yourself first.

 

12) How does your political activism factor into your poetry? Is this something you keep separate or do you feel a writer’s life should include political duty?
I’ve never considered myself any kind of activist. I just wake up in the morning (or afternoon), and try my best not to a dick that day. Increasingly, I’ve been pretty successful.

It’s not activism to treat people that I share time and space with decently, nor is it activism to call bullshit bullshit, to defend those that can’t defend themselves, or to challenge authority and privilege wherever it’s found, especially within my own habits and beliefs.

None of this is activism…it’s just the tax I pay to be the lucky son of a bitch that I have been, so far, in life.

 

13) What are some of your favorite literary journals active today?
Harbinger Asylum is the best journal ever!

 

14) Finally, is there anything a poet writing on the margins of society should realize? How do we face adversity and make something of ourselves?

 

Give yourself permission to grow, evolve, to change your own narrative. Go out and DO before you sit down and write.

We are ALREADY “something”, man…it took billions of years and massive amounts of mystery to make our little toenail. We can’t improve upon or alter that in anyway, but me, at least, I’m ALWAYS ready for whatever is next, whatever is over that next rise on the horizon.

Never define yourself as anything but the most present reality. When it changes, joyfully change with it. You’re going to change anyway, we each get to decide whether that change is decay or evolution. Don’t fear anything.
Don’t fear yourself.
Ever.

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