Wandering Soul with Coffee: An Interview with Alyssa Trivett

First, please tell me about yourself and your relationship with poetry? What draws you to it and when did you begin to think of yourself as a poet? 

I’ll paraphrase my bio. I’m a wandering soul from the Midwest, and I scrawl lines when I’m not working two jobs. My relationship with poetry started with my love for music lyrics, and from reading poetry. I’m drawn to poetry by the challenge of piecing lines together. I became more of a poet after my first piece was officially published in Fall 2015. In total, I’ve been writing for about thirteen years. Being single also helps with time, I have a little more time to write.. not that I’m looking for a husband right now.

I note a specific diction in your poems. It is a fine sort of terse and yet gives a sense of hurrying along to the next line. Is this something you developed or is it perhaps rooted in your location?

It has developed over time. I spew lines too fast in my head sometimes, so getting them down as quick as I can is necessary.

 

Do other poets you know have a similar style and approach as you?

I have yet to meet anyone with the same style. To be honest, I think we’re all different….as cliché as that sounds.

Among famous poets, who are you most comfortable with? Is there a poet you just get restless over? Why does that poet inspire so much energy from you?

I read a lot of contemporary poetry; mainly just random poems here and there. Billy Collins is up there.  For famous/classic poets, I’ve read a lot of Plath’s work lately. I’ve always enjoyed Frost and Cummings, but I burned out on Frost years ago. I was trying too hard to mimic the famous poets. I had to realize it was more about developing my own style. The mentioned poets inspire energy from me because I try to keep a puzzle-piece from each poem I read, whether it is a favorite line or a word I find interesting which I can carry with me.

What is your educational background? Has it pushed your writing at all?

I completed my studies and worked in Television Production for a little bit. Let’s just say it wasn’t in the cards. The industry wasn’t steady. I took a few classes in Television Writing also. I used more descriptions instead of dialogue in the scripts. I figured that’s how some of the poetry was born.

What kind of knowledge do you think books convey, and poetry specifically?

I think books convey to us that there is another world aside from the one we live in. Sometimes it’s good to visit another world, even just by reading a few words, regardless if it is ten minutes, or an hour; it is a temporary place for our mind, a breather. It sparks creativity and gets us out of our heads, and away from the mundane things that we do every single day. Poetry books have shown me that there are other ways to view everyday life, mainly by being more observant of my surroundings.

 

Have you had any experiences that broadened your view of poetry and life?

Yes; mostly dealing with numerous relatives, friends, and pets passing on in my lifetime, and currently, illness (not mine). It put things into perspective and it makes you realize how strong you are. Also, attending more open mics has become a positive influence, and I met two very good friends from poetry; props to them. I also attend a very small poetry group, which I always look forward to.

 

Do you like other writers besides poets? Who are they? Can a poet learn to hone his/her skill reading other works?

One of my favorite non-poetry books is ‘A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius’ by Dave Eggers. I believe a poet can learn to hone their skills by reading other works. I can’t pin my writing down to one influence. Sometimes it is by things I see, or maybe it is from a quote, or events from my childhood. I’ve also written a few poems as a direct influence from reading poetry books written by friends; two (poems) of which have been published.

Finally, coffee is always present in your poems. Is coffee your Muse?

I wouldn’t say it is a muse, I’ve just always enjoyed it, and it helps kick-start my long work days.

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The Facets of Creative Writing: An Interview with Miriam Sagan

What kind of experience did you from creative writing instruction as a student? How did that compare to your experiences as an instructor yourself?

 

I studied at Harvard and Boston University. Although I had some strong mentors—Robert Fitzgerald and John Malcom Brinnin—instruction was pretty casual. Creative writing wasn’t really “taught” back in the 1970’s—you just sort of found your own way.

When I teach at community college, I tend to be very craft oriented. I teach structure, tropes, forms—in all three genres. But I don’t emphasize being a “professional” or academic literary writer. I’m too much of a hippie, and I was taught more by immersion in reading and writing than anything else.

 

What do you think a student in creative writing courses can expect to learn? How many students enter your classes and see improvement in their writing? What sort of comments do you get from students after they have taken one of your classes?

At minimum, to learn simply from having some time and intention. At best, how their own individual voices combine with traditional techniques. People seem very happy with my teaching, including on-line classes, but I think any teacher who gives true attention and compassion can move a student forward.

 

Do you think writing poetry is different from writing prose? How so?

Well, Paris is different than Chicago. I think different in every way. Poetry is fast, driven by feeling, momentary perception. Fiction has that nasty engine called plot.

 

Is there such a thing as natural talent in this field? What could a person who is naturally inclined to write learn in a course on writing? Do creative writing courses help young students learn discipline in their writing?

 

Of course, but like all natural talent, it really isn’t that important. A lot of teachers rightfully emphasize elbow grease and mastery as opposed to talent—years of work. But that takes a certain kind of talent too. Maybe the greatest talent is to love what you do.

 

What can creative writing teach a person in regard to other aspects of living? Is there anything practical learned from creative writing that can be brought to the “real world”?

Well, maybe empathy and self-awareness. Also, observation. But really I think writing just grows writing. Some excellent authors might be pretty poor human beings. I don’t think the insights necessarily translate from the page to life.

 

What qualities do great poems have from your own reading experience?

Transcendence. Transport. I also like it when the little hairs on my arm stand up. Insight, and the beauty of language and Aristotle’s catharsis. But mostly I like getting that rush.

 

I read advice from Benjamin Franklin concerning learning to write recently. His advice was extremely helpful because it suggested methods. Most advice is “read more, write more” but there is no practice of writing suggested. Do you have suggestions for the practice of writing?

Yes, I do. I studied for a while with Natalie Goldberg, who proposes writing practice. This helps a lot, as does The Artist’s Way’s (Julia Cameron) advice on morning pages. I suggest writing raw every day, using one of these techniques. Then, try working your way through a book of forms or prompts. Essentially you are trying to build writing muscle and flexibility. I once heard the critic Helen Vendler say the best thing a novice writer could do was make a lot of mistakes quickly. Read every day—but as a writer. Keep notes. Imitate.

 

I sometimes suggest teaching in ways that encourage thinking outside of the daily box for creative writers. When someone asks me how to workshop, for instance, I suggest they give an exercise that will lead students away from commonplace thinking. Then edit, edit, edit. What way would you approach editing? Do you have editing methods or specific ideas on how and what to edit?

I hate editing. Allen Ginsberg said—first thought, best thought. This might not really be true, but for me sometimes it’s just—first thought, no other thought! That said, I suggest editing organically.

What is the piece? It’s shape, theme, purpose? Edit towards that shape. Take out the extraneous, add in detail.

Then get someone else to read it!

 

Tell me about your own books. What inspired them? How long roughly did each take to complete? What obstacles did you face in writing them?

I’ve published about 30 books, and written probably close to 30 more, that will mercifully never see the light of day. I’m 62 years old. At thirty, I set myself an impossible task—to publish a book or chapbook a year, or to complete some kind of big project annually. So each book had its muse, meaning, purpose. My novel Black Rainbow took 30 years to write. I have a chapbook forthcoming from Red Bird that took about fourteen super intense days to write (I was in a writer’s residence on Lama Mountain north of Taos, NM).

Actually, I think the books might be one giant project. They feel very interconnected and range from a tiny lovely print out from Origami to a hardback from a university press. They truly are a record of where I’ve been, and who.

My major obstacle was just that often I was learning on the go—my vision vaster than my level of skill. But I don’t begrudge that!

 

James Baldwin said once that any writer will probably think the world conspires against his or her talent. Czelaw Milosz said in his Nobel address that there is a “conspiracy of silence.” In what ways have you felt this yourself? Why do you think writers are inclined more to this thinking than others?

Fight this way of thinking with every fiber. I feel the world doesn’t care about me one way or another. And that’s fine!

 

In your opinion, what separates a great writer from a mediocre one? Do classic writers have anything in common?

Poetry is more of a narrow range. An OK poem just isn’t that interesting because it usually doesn’t quite hit being a “poem” yet. Mediocre fiction can be quite readable—non-fiction too, if you’re reading for plot or subject. “Great” writers might have reputations that come in fads. I’d go for “good”—and here again, if literature takes me out of myself, I’m content.

 

Could you say something about style? What is style? How is style developed? Do writers change styles? What do you think sparks those changes?

Style is an expression of personality—like hair or clothes or cooking. It’s sort of an extended set of accessories of the self. I used to think it was set—like adult height or certain character flaws and virtues. But I had a shocking (to me!) change of style a few seasons ago—so still exploring this question.

 

Does a writer’s worldview have an effect on their use of language? Why are semantics important to a writer’s work?

I really don’t know. It’s a cool question, but I don’t have a strong feeling about it. I almost wonder if language doesn’t affect worldview. Are semantic patterns fixed? Do they come from an individual rather than a language group? I do know that if I curse at something I feel more hostile—the opposite if I bless it.

Finally, there is a lot of talk of kinds of censorship the universities practice today. By this, I mean safe spaces and trigger warnings. I also mean how political correctness is used to silence ideas. What has prompted this movement toward hypersensitivity to certain topics and ideas? Why are students choosing to impose this on their learning experience? Although these approaches begin with a noble and thoughtful aim, they seem to lead to distrust of personal judgment and cultural repression. What effects does language have on culture? Do you think political correctness is censorship or could be used as censorship, or is it useful in some capacity? Will it have an effect on literature and the way it is written?  How do we adapt to its demands?

I have little first hand experience with this, as community college settings don’t tend to grapple with this much.

I did have an opposite experience in 1972. At Harvard, my roommates were taking Anthro 101. The professor announced on the first day that the women could expect lower grades than the men because they were biologically less well equipped to study! Of course the women students were completely freaked out. So, I think for those of us with long memories, this emphasis on safe space may be because we remember very unsafe space.

I do agree with what you say—Although these approaches begin with a noble and thoughtful aim, they seem to lead to distrust of personal judgment and cultural repression.

To be honest, I doubt very much if art and literature should or could give in to any ideology, including political correctness. Art under Stalin or Mao isn’t what we’d consider a genuine expression of the artist or writer.

Academic approaches come and go.

The true pursuit of writing does not.

Combat the State: Interview with Scott Thomas Outlar

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In your interviews, I notice an optimism concerning the future of art. What does that optimism stem from?

 

My state of optimism arises from the need I sense for there to be a counterbalance of energy to combat the negativity and nihilism that so many disillusioned people project in this modern culture. There is no doubt that society is currently weighed down by the regressive, oppressive, fascistic institutions that have been gradually gaining more and more undo power and control over the past several decades. When citizens begin to feel that freewill and personal decisions are no longer available due to the centralized structures of the Beast System continually eroding sovereignty and liberty, they lose touch with the most important aspect of what it means to be a human being blessed with consciousness and self-awareness. Which is to say, they lose their individuality and are swallowed by the mechanical, hive-mind forces of collectivism. It’s only natural that angst, anger, and apathy will soon follow, and the deeper a person falls into the trap of feeling powerless, the more they will concede what remaining control they have over to the very systems which feed on them like a parasite.

At a certain point, people seem to just throw their hands in the air and give up hope, either joining along with the decadence through the misguided thinking that they can regain power by serving the Beast, or simply losing all desire to care which leads to a different, more pervasive, type of depravity. I harbor no Pollyannaish illusions about some sort of miracle soaring down through the heavens to save the human species. I know damn well that the only way to correct the course we are heading down is for those who do still have a fighting spirit to lift their voices on high and shout encouragement into the world for those who might still have the ears to hear such a positive message. All is not lost. Yet. But changes are desperately needed, and quickly. Civilization has entered into a stage of chaos, but if we play our cards correctly, we will emerge on the other side in a state of higher order. A muscle must first be broken down before it can be built back up with stronger tissue. This is a basic natural law which applies to all matter in the physical plane of existence. As Nietzsche is well known for having said: That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.

We are facing great trials and tribulations, it is true. But I respond to that by saying: Thank God! I choose to align with the energy of adaptation and evolution. Survival of the fittest, sure. But, in this day and age, it is also a question about survival of the wisest. Survival of those who keep their heads screwed on straight atop a swiveling neck while refusing to play into the victim mentality which leads only to a further sense of feeling downtrodden. I’m not here to heal the world. I’m not here to snap my fingers or twitch my nose and make all the problems magically disappear. I offer no guarantee that there will be success, but I swear on the grave of billions of years of ancestral DNA which courses through my veins that I will do everything I possibly can to espouse the values born from out the Magna Carta, Declaration of Independence, Constitution of the United States of America, and Bill of Rights, along with the Enlightenment and Renaissance cultures. Our forbearers fought off the grip of tyranny and terrorism that once choked them. That vice grip has returned around our necks tighter than ever. I enthusiastically and optimistically believe in my heart of hearts that there are people on this earth alive today who will help play key roles in chopping such a villainous hand off for good.

 

 

Do you feel there is a cultural renaissance emerging? Often renaissance develops from world decay, especially turmoil in nations and the natural order becoming unsustainable. What signs do you see of this renaissance?

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Well, as the old adage goes, sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before being able to begin the rise back upwards toward salvation. Humans can be a rather stubborn breed, so it takes a while for lessons to sink in sometimes. Mistakes are often repeated, as if spinning in an eternal loop, before the light bulb starts flashing with an electric eureka! This, unfortunately, applies on the macro scale as well concerning civilizations. Morality has been drained from the body politic, and we are now a withered, fragile nation. However, the end is never truly the end, but only a new beginning in the constantly unfolding process of life’s continuation.

My forthcoming book, Chaos Songs, from Weasel Press is dedicated to the chaos that must first be experienced before a higher state of order can emerge. We’ve admitted there is a problem; now, we can begin to work on solutions.

Yes, there is a cultural renaissance taking place. Artistically and spiritually. One of the most positive signs I’ve noticed has to do with communities returning to the land to produce clean, healthy, natural foods. Healthy gut bacteria helps to create a healthy mind, and so the importance on what we put into our bodies cannot be stressed enough. The rise of pharmaceutical companies and their propaganda of symptom-suppressing allopathic modalities of Western medicine has led to an untenable situation. Polluted blood leads to fuzzy thinking. Burnt out adrenals leads to sluggishness and depression. Glands polluted with toxins leads to a scenario of the living dead. The remedy for this zombie nation is a cleanse, a baptism, a purification from within. Raw, living, electrically-charged, enzyme-rich, nutrient-dense foods are the wave of the future. That which is old shall be made new again. I am not anti-science nor anti-technology by any means, but I am willing to decry and call bullshit on modern-day snake-oil salesmen and pushers of synthetic poison. The truth is found in the fresh fruit hanging ripe from the tree, not the isolated compounds cooked up in laboratories to cash in on big bucks.

There is a time and a place for all things in life, and so I’d be a fool to espouse a belief that there is never a need for “modern” medicine. Emergency situations and extreme circumstances absolutely assure us that opioids, anti-depressants, and anti-bacterial drugs are beneficial in some cases. These cases are in the extreme minority. A majority of medications nowadays are writ from a position of ignorance, and these almost always exacerbate the original condition. All that being said, I salute EMTs and physicians who do good work.

Where the hell did that jag come from? Who knows? I’m just glad I didn’t start blasting the field of oncology. This is neither the time nor place. Anyway, moving right along…

Another key aspect that gives me heart and helps to steel my will in this battle for a peaceful future comes from the modern day shamans who are tapped in to the holy spirit. The role of the artist in society is to serve as a reflection of the shadow aspects of the collective consciousness, while also shining light on solutions at the end of the tunnel. Being immersed in the contemporary lit scene during the past two years, I can say unequivocally that there are enough good people on the job to get this runaway train turned around. There will soon be a quantum leap, and then growth in a positive direction will become exponential and unstoppable.

 

 

Where do you think the best poetry is being created today?

 

 

I can, of course, only speak from my subjective experience, but I do feel that my finger is at least partially placed upon the pulse of the contemporary scene. I’ve made it a point over the past two years to immerse myself deeply in as many communities of independent, small press poetry publishers as possible. The global connectivity allowed for by the internet and social media has allowed me to discover great work from across the world. I can speak, first of all, about different pockets here in the United States, chief among them being The Southern Collective Experience. We in the group are doing our best to spread the good word about poetry’s viable path into a bright future.

There is also excellent work coming out of India, Nigeria, and across Europe. I regularly read poets from Albania to Australia, from Pakistan to Canada, from the coasts of Asia to the shores of Antarctica (well, OK, maybe I’m stretching it a bit there when it comes to the frozen tundra). I think that in this modern age we live in, it is not so much a matter of where geographically the best poetry is being written because the art form itself is representative of a specific state of mind, and so it can flower and bloom in just about any locale, whether near a pristine beach or under the scorching sun in an arid desert. The best poetry is found in any atmosphere where awakened, self-aware, highly conscious beings live. Those type of people who are infused with passion burning through their souls, and who are in direct communion with the source of life itself. It has always been this way. It just so happens that we are now blessed to be alive at a momentous point of time when such voices are able to come together via the world wide web to make new connections. This is just one of many reasons why I am so high on the spirit of an artistic revolution being able to energetically alter the wave that humanity rides into the future.

 

 

Sometimes the most culturally backwards places create the conditions necessary for revolutionary thought and art. Do you find a parallel in America today for this tendency?

 

 

I may have jumped the gun a bit in an earlier answer when I spoke to this general idea. But to reiterate, yes, when an individual or a collective group gets pushed into a corner and is facing untenable circumstances, the basic human will toward freedom and liberty is ignited. Governments, along with the international, above the law banks and corporations which said governments sponsor, are completely out of control at this point with their methods of tyranny. The natural course that this ultimately leads to is revolt. We see it in the streets as anger foments. But the violence such a course creates only begets further violence, and revolutions born of such base emotions oftentimes lead to even worse conditions. The only true revolution is that which takes place within an individual’s own consciousness. It is a type of paradigm shift which must be undertaken internally, which then leads to an uprising of spirit. Basically, it is a return of common damn sense. It is a renaissance of humanity signified by seizing back the reins of control from crony capitalist systems of fascism. We live in interesting times to say the least.

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What are your thoughts on Brexit? Is this another sign that the natural order is changing directions?

 

 

The referendum put forth recently in which the British people voted to leave the European Union has the potential to be one of the most important political shifts in a generation. Of course, there will likely be a years-long interval before the official separation is ratified, and so politicians, who have been known to occasionally ignore the will of their citizens, could still figure out a treacherous way to weasel out of the exit. But the message has been sent, loud and clear, across the world. The majority of people prefer to keep the power over their lives in local government, not international systems where unaccountable technocrats rule through some type of neo Divine Law.

The European Union, whatever its original intentions might have been, has developed into a dangerous, authoritarian political machine. My opinion is that it should suffer the same fate as the Soviet Union, and the sovereignty of individual nation states should be returned to the people where it belongs. There have been recent murmurings about an EU army being established. To hell with that. Dismantle the Beast now before it gets any larger. I fully believe this process is underway after the Brexit episode showed other nations that there is a viable path out of the union.

The bigger the giant is, the harder it will fall. So, of course, there will be some precarious financial situations created as the deconstruction process begins. So it goes. Ripping off a Band-Aid stings for a moment, but after the wound is exposed to fresh air it can heal more readily.

 

 

Although you are a poet and not a political analyst, what are your thoughts on decentralized and centralized governance? What strengths and weaknesses do you perceive in both?

 

 

Because I am a man who unabashedly, even brazenly, rants and raves against collectivized forms of government in an effort to rouse the rabble toward the imminent cessation of such systems, I’m not sure that I can provide an unbiased answer here.

But I do wholeheartedly support the free association of people, and I fully believe that communities and organizations which are formed out of individuals’ desire to work together can bring about incredible results. Thank God for charity!

Social systems have the ability to provide food for the hungry, clothing for the poor, and housing for those who have hit hard times. Such systems can also help to educate children, protect the environment, build roadways, create gardens and co-ops, fund art programs, and do almost anything else conceivable in the hearts and minds of humanity. All without needing to first steal the resources of a certain class of people to fund a bloated bureaucracy that doles out the dough.

 

What 20th century poets do you think carry the strongest voice for today? Who seems most prophetic in their vision?

 

 

I’m going to take a dive on this one. I would be talking out of class if I pretended to have a scholarly understanding of twentieth century poetry. I’ll leave such a conversation to more capable minds. In a few years from now, after I’ve had a chance to study some of the past voices that many of my readers have compared me to, I’ll be able to give this question a go. As for now, I am too focused on the contemporary scene and how it can bring about the type of future that pulses in the back of my mind 24/7/365. I know that might sound like a bit of a copout, but I’d also suggest that there is such a thing as the old rope-a-dope…

 

 

What are your feelings about Songs of a Dissident? I, as publisher, was drawn to the political perspective and its precision. It is defined and provocative. When I ask for feelings, I refer to the process of writing it, the results, and the experience of seeing it published.

 

 

The process that Songs of a Dissident has gone through, from originally compiling and structuring the collection of poems to the current day where it has now been out in the world for around eight months, has been extraordinary.

The poems themselves were written in late 2014 and the first two months of 2015 during a period when I was watching and listening to documentaries, interviews, and recorded performances of Charles Bukowski. Some of the pieces are heavily influenced by his straight-forward, brutally honest approach to writing without pretense or fluff. The title of the book was inspired by the social justice newsletter, Dissident Voice, where I began my publishing career two years ago. To this day, I still contribute a weekly piece to the Sunday Poetry Page at DV. When I began putting the chapbook together, I was consciously looking to create an overall theme centered around the darker aspects of modern-day political and social institutions.

The process of getting the collection accepted was, thankfully, quite smooth. Transcendent Zero Press was the first publisher that I submitted the manuscript to, and they turned out to be the perfect fit. Working with Dustin Pickering has been an excellent experience; he helped guide the publication along at every turn with true professionalism, and I felt confident from the beginning that he understood the direction I was aiming towards with the material. Dustin wrote a generous introduction to the collection, and the Greek artist Christos Karapanos provided the front cover image of a fiery phoenix. The cover design was expertly polished off by Glynn M. Irby who put together a nice finished product.

Since the book’s release in December of 2015, I’ve been well pleased with the response and feedback from readers. There have been strong reviews published in Tuck Magazine, Indiana Voice Journal, Section 8 Magazine, Adam Levon Brown’s site, Ragazine, and Asian Signature. I’ve had an opportunity to read poems from the collection at several events, including the radio program Dante’s Old South which is hosted by The Southern Collective Experience in coordination with NPR/WUTC in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

I have two new collections that have become available in 2016 (Happy Hour Hallelujah through CTU Publishing and Chaos Songs through Weasel Press), but my enthusiasm for Songs of a Dissident is still growing, and I plan to continue promoting the work as much as possible. There are a number of opportunities coming into place on the horizon, and I’m hopeful that word concerning the collection will continue to spread as it is introduced to a wider audience.

 

 

Are there any statesmen you draw inspiration from? Do you ever doubt your vision of the political arena?

 

 

The statesman that I’ve found to be the most honorable in the fifteen years since I began following politics is Ron Paul. His message resonated with me during the 2012 Presidential campaign, and still does today, although I admit to not following his work as closely as I once did. His son Rand inherited the grassroots movement that his father helped grow during his decades of dedication to the Libertarian/Constitutionalist cause, but, sadly, the Judas-son has tossed in his lot with the establishment of the RNC, and now the Campaign for Liberty has been swallowed by the machinery of the two-party system.

I am constantly questioning my understanding of the political arena. I’d be insane not to. There is massive disinformation spewed from all directions, no matter where one turns to find a semblance of truth. Every media outlet has an agenda, and many of them are anti-American. I view corporate “news” channels such as CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, and NBC as being globalist mouthpieces. I watch them as a way of monitoring the enemy. That being said, I also view FOX, Breitbart, Daily Caller, Infowars, WND, and Drudge Report with the same amount of skepticism that I do Huffington Post, Salon, Think Progress, Media Matters, and the New York Times. Or, for that matter, RT, Young Turks, and Al Jazeera. The point is, however, that I do at least monitor all these outlets, along with several other less-known programs, on a regular basis. My angle of perception is constantly being adjusted to try and decipher just what in the actual hell is going on.

One of my favorite games these days during the current political season is to scroll through social media newsfeeds and try to determine which propaganda source different people are getting their talking points from. It is usually not too hard a tail to pin on the donkey. Sadly, critical discernment is not a big issue amongst the blind cult members of the major political parties in America. Cognitive dissonance runs rampant, and it’s one of the major contributing factors as to why the situation has reached such dire straits.

 

On a final note, I once wrote that religion offered no hope but politics can change the world and inspire movement. In recent years, with promises in elections and still seeing a lack of real lasting change, I have forgotten that tune. Now I see action as doing what inspires action, competing with yourself for betterment, and forgetting Washington’s antics and drivel. Perhaps religion offers personal perspective, unity of thought, and hope to continue your endeavors even in opposition. I treated politics as a religion in my twenties but see that for the most part voting and activism is limited in scope. An individual must find hope somewhere. Please offer your thoughts on this perspective.

 

 

I can certainly relate to this question, as my own philosophy concerning both religion and politics has gone through several transformations over the years. In fact, I would say that my views have shifted nearly 180 degrees on both subjects. During my late teens and most of my twenties, I believed Judeo-Christianity and all the Abrahamic religions to be, perhaps, the most wicked and vile institutions ever established in the history of humanity, infecting the hearts and minds of billions of people. Further, because of a lack of self-love coupled with my disgust for the species (severely influenced by my perception of Nietzsche’s work at the time), I was suffering from the misbegotten ideology that the government should be used to control and dictate the lives of those I felt to be fools.

All of this thinking was turned on its head when I reached my early thirties. Through a regiment of meditation, exercise, healthy dietary practices, extensive research on any number of subjects, and the cultivation of mindfulness, I was able to experience an epiphany (I will refrain from referring to it as an enlightenment) of self-worth, inner peace, and love for my true purpose as a man. With this love for the self, a love for the species as a whole was also born within my spirit.

This is when I came to the realization that religion, while it has certainly been used by those in power to commit heinous and wretched acts, is still, in the final equation, a matter of freewill. In America, at least. I understand that there are many places on earth where religion is still a controlled and oppressive force, and I stand opposed to any system of this kind. But, in those territories where it is a matter of choice, I no longer take issue with any individual who finds strength or comfort in their particular belief of God. I respect their right to worship freely as they see fit, even if, in some cases, I don’t necessarily happen to agree with them.

Government, however, I now realize to be fundamentally antithetical to freewill. It is a system forced upon people using the threat of violence, imprisonment, and execution. I love humanity, and I love the concept of personal responsibility. When individuals are allowed to blaze their own trail in life, they are able to reach toward their highest potential. Success is not guaranteed, of course, but it is at least possible. The larger a governmental system becomes, the more stifled the will of individuals becomes. I no longer harbor those extreme, control freak traits that led me to favor a centralized power apparatus controlling the masses. Now I, without hesitation, openly sing the song of voluntaryism, the right to self-defense, the non-aggression principle, and true anarchy (which, despite all the hubbub and hype, is actually just a philosophy advocating the absence of rulers). Let each individual manifest his or her destiny upon this glorious paradise of earth. The paradigm shift is well underway already. I only seek to catch the high wave and ride it as long and as far as possible.

To speak directly to the idea of hope, I believe that the more freedom a person has, the more hope they will sense for the future. Finding inner peace is the single greatest quantum leap of consciousness that can be experienced. It is the ultimate game-changer. Every shaman, prophet, guru, and true spiritual guide throughout history has echoed the same basic sentiment, and I, certainly, could not possibly say it any better than Christ did when he put forth these ideas in the Gospel of Thomas: “The Kingdom of God is found within. If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” Amen. Selah. Hallelujah.

Why Be an Arbiter of Literature? by Z. M. Wise

Cavafy1900.jpg

C. P. Cavafy

 

“Literature is only for those who are too frightful to speak their own mind,” said absolutely no one…ever. For ages, many have disproved literature and made the creators look like imbeciles who have been previously living under the cavernous rocks we so daringly speak of. Why does the human race constantly feel the need to be entirely defensive when the matter of written creation pops its head out of the gopher-sized hole of insecurities?

The title of this book includes two acronyms, ‘A.O.L.’ and ‘L.O.L.’ the former stands for ‘America Online,’ while the latter stands for ‘Laugh Out Loud,’ a form of netspeak. However, what those acronyms should read are, ‘Arbiter of Literature,’ and ‘Lovers of Literature.’ Dearest readers, why must we over-establish ourselves to the regal rank of arbiter? Why can’t we just create, escape, and love?

Stephen King and Anne Rice: King and Queen of Horror. Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats. C.P. Cavafy: The Finest Modern Greek Poet. These are status symbols. They are nothing more. We have inadvertently granted these honorary recipients the right and have given them these majestic titles without considering certain invisible ramifications. While these literary figures deserve such recognition and honor, these monikers should remain hidden in the ruins of judgment. This can easily be compared to a couple of modern situations.

The first analogy that comes to mind is a singing competition. Although the judges are critically-acclaimed and have received an assortment of accolades, the results are still based on the judges’ opinions. They are still ordinary people; they are not emperors of music and vocalization. The second situation that should be brought up is a literary contest. Writers from around the globe bare their souls on parchment (and digital screens), submitting their ink children to be published on the page. As we all know, whether the work is performed or read, the creator automatically becomes naked (in the metaphorical sense, naturally). That nakedness involves vulnerability and judgment. This is similar to futuristic performers who belong on the stage. They are judged by some of the most commendable people who have contributed and dedicated their lives to this craft. Unfortunately, the fact remains that they are still people. Many would desire a title with the words, ‘Queen, King, Goddess, God, Mistress, Master, etc,’ but do we really deserve it?

One poet is not better than the other. Superiority may go straight to the bowels of Hell. If one poet is better than the other, then it is based on the opinionated mouths, not the factual points. A fellow poet and friend said in plain and simple terms that the arts are all about perspective. Instead of putting writers in a dead set category, why don’t we bask in their words and see them for who they truly are? Though certain factors may be implemented in what is considered as great literature, music, visual art, theatrics, the culinary field, or virtually any other subsection of the arts, they do not change that the progression of an individual’s gift is what takes precedence over every other matter. Arbiters, nothing! We are all arbiters in our own way.

The aforementioned people do deserve the endless amount of praise, as well as the millions of others who are not in this composition. As long as the masses and standouts continue to spread their love of the written word, Gaia will be in stellar hands. Read on. Write on. Let the creative fluid flow through until its electricity hits the ink-bearing utensil’s tip. When letters and syllables become words, it is only the paper’s overture.

December 30, 2015

 

 

Interview with Kiriti Sengupta, published in The Statesman March 6th, 2016

Kiriti Sengupta is author of The Freshman’s Welcome; the bestselling trilogy My Glass of Wine, The Reverse Tree, and Healing Waters Floating Lamps; and recently, The Earthen Flute. The Earthen Flute is a bestselling collection in both India and America in Indian literature. Sengupta works in Calcutta in dentistry and likes to nurture friendships with younger writers. I caught him in a moment of contemplation after his newest book hit the shelves.

Sengupta 

http://www.thestatesman.com/news/8th-day/no-alien-in-america/128046.html

 

What inspires you the most to continue writing?

 

My studies, observations and living! If you want me to elaborate on them, it will take pages, but I would like to state that I study to observe, and I observe to reflect on my studies. I am no way close to what you say as “ideal living,” and I truly look out for holistic living measures. You know, we often talk about “evidence-based-dentistry,” and my life essentially complies with living evidences. Honestly, it is the deviation from the set-rules that keeps me going.

 

Do you set aside a time for writing? Is there a moment in your daily activities when you feel most inspired?

 

Nothing like that. My friends consider me happy-go-lucky kind of a guy! People often say, “You don’t look like a writer, let alone a poet.” I appreciate their views, and unless I feel like pouring out my words I don’t write even an update on Facebook. I don’t enjoy a set time that I can devote to my writing. I am a practicing dental surgeon, I manage a small press as well. I meet authors and poets on and off. And yes, I don’t socialize as it is expected from a family person. I don’t write on a daily basis, but my mind quickly registers the observations, which let me thrive on them.

 

What is your daily life like? Does it get entwined with your poetry?

 

I have a day job, Dustin. As I said before I practice as a dental surgeon, and there are but a few occasions when poetry occurs. Do you remember the poem “Envy” in my latest collection, The Earthen Flute? It got humor, it also bore sarcasm. Above all, “Envy” could be treated as psychosomatic poetry, but readers might consider it weird. Listen to these lines, and I hope you won’t mind:

 

Jealous—

A Dentist can say if you are one

 

Your teeth deviate from
The occlusal table

And thus, lips suffer from bites

 

 

Is there a place for poetry and literature in India’s popular imagination? It seems Americans find it dull and tedious.

 

Poetry is popular only among poets, worldwide! One who appreciates poetry writes poetry. He/she may not be a published poet, but then you need not to write a poem on a paper, or on your cellphone to establish your claim of being a poet. What name would you like to offer to someone who continues to write poetry in his/her mind? There are numerous such people, and they hardly wish to be marked as poet. I’ll love to call them “non-practicing poets.” And poetry essentially thrives on both the practicing and non-practicing group of poets.

India is considered the spiritual capital of the world. We got innumerable sages and monks who had made verses popular in our land. And then, we had Tagore, who made global readers serious about Bengali poetry. Poetry is an extremely important ingredient of Indian culture and philosophy. The corporate India may not be interested in literature or poetry, but they don’t govern our heritage in any capacity.

 

In America, we host “slams”: poetry competitions based on performance. This seems to be the most popular outlet for poetry’s expression. Does India have a specific outlet poetry finds itself in?

 

Honestly, I am not aware of poetry competitions in India. We have a few important literary festivals that happen annually, but I don’t think they dedicate even half of their tenure to poetry. Probably in all major cities we have groups of poets, but then I wonder, if they are, in any way, instrumental in bringing out quality poetry.

 

Tell me about your upcoming collection. Is there a message you wish to convey? Who are you addressing your words to?

 

My newest book of poems is titled The Earthen Flute. Kolkata based Hawakaal Publisher has published and launched it formally on Feb 21 (2016) in Calcutta. My poetry essentially bears messages that I wish to convey to my readers. But I am not the right person to state those messages, for poetry is reader-specific. There are twenty-one poems in this book; short, long and prose-poems. A few of them have appeared in literary journals and blogs. I have added fresh poems as well. There are illustrations that add to the appeal. All in all, The Earthen Flute, I’m pretty sure, is going to be a collector’s edition. Truth-seekers and poetry lovers around the world may find my work worthy! You will be glad to know that my book has been reviewed on The Lake magazine (United Kingdom) even before its release. You may read the complete preview on this link: http://www.thelakepoetry.co.uk/reviews/february16/

The Millennium Post (English daily published both in Calcutta and New Delhi) said:

 

In this collection of 21 poems, Sengupta talks about how the modern youth is obsessed by what is trendy but ignorant about the wisdom that ancient mythology is laden with. “For example, in a poem titled “Cryptic Idioms,” I talk about how we follow certain yogic postures without even realizing that these were actually part of Sanatan Dharma or Hindu mythology,” Sengupta told Millennium Post.

 

 

Do you feel your poetry is more personal or transcendent? If personal, how does the average reader relate? If transcendent, how do you reach that state?

 

If my poetry is personal or transcendent, critics can answer this best. I don’t write poetry to make it personal or the other way round. I try to convey messages. Some call them “wisdom messages,” others may term my poetry surrealistic! I’m not bothered, you see. I remain conscious when I compose a poem, but poetry essentially arrives without a notice. Let me quote a few lines from a critique:

 

If Sengupta were to follow T.S. Eliot’s dictum that true art should be impersonal, what would that lead to? The clash of opinions still persists — that between the romantic school and the modernist school — Sengupta adheres to the romantic school of thought. It’s the creator’s choice and I guess it’s right for him because if he were to turn impersonal, that would take away the essence of his signature poems, the unique subjective and personal elements. (Page 33, Ketaki Datta and Tania Chakravertty/Rhapsodies and Musings/ Hawakaal Publishers/ July 2015)

 

I can remember a commentary on my trilogy:

Worldly observations become the occasion for explorations of meanings: of the self and its status within the world and within consciousness, and of life’s journey from birth to death … While Sengupta’s poems touch the spirit, and often deal with spiritual matters, they are uniformly grounded in the world around us. (Casey Dorman/ The Statesman/ Jan 31, 2016)

What characterizes a good poet from a bad one? Are there objective criteria? Can habit make a person a poet? What distinguishes a poet from one who writes poetry?

 

These are difficult to answer, Dustin! You have added so many brief questions together. Who is a poet, if I may ask? One may be a famous poet, a popular poet, an esteemed poet, an unknown poet, a non-practicing poet, but they all are poets in the first place. They are neither good, nor are they bad. You love a poet, but then do you love all his/her poems? I mean, all poems that he/she writes? You read a not-so-good poem, written by your beloved poet; how would you rate/grade the poet now? When can a writer claim him/her-self as a poet? I never claim myself as a poet. I write poetry, and if I can be named “poet” is to be ascertained by my readers and reviewers. Don’t go by the dictionary and name a writer “poet” if he/she writes poetry.

 

How do you find the time to write?

 

How do you manage time to eat, Dustin? Aren’t you too occupied to manage even a nap? You are to eat and sleep and write. And I am no exception. Hey, did I answer your question?

 

Do you think the “Muse” is a real being? What purpose does she serve? Who is she? Why does she latch onto certain people?

 

Do you think the “Muse” is a female being? Why do you think so? The “Muse” is only you, if you understand my point. Let me quote a few lines from The Earthen Flute.

 

I’m not a pervert, take a note!

I’m a woman as long as I’m dynamic

I’m a woman unless I’m stilled

Do you think of a woman’s voyage to the heaven? (“Seventh Heaven”)

 

The “Muse” is only your kinetic mind. Your soul keeps wandering to understand the reason(s) of being restless over the years. And it is the “Muse” that allows one to pen down the thoughts of restlessness. You cannot appreciate quietude by keeping mum. You would not be able to celebrate silence if you remain soundless. You have to cultivate the skill of becoming still. Tranquility has its charm when enjoyed in noise. A poet is the blessed soul who struggles for silence and peace, and thus guiding the society in a subtle way towards a harmonious cohabitation with the “Muse.”

 

Do you read a lot? Does reading factor into your writing? What role does reading play for a writer? How much do you read on average?

 

I’m an average reader. Thanks to my lazy eyes that have made me one such. Long poems tire me, extremely long essays exhaust my brain to no end, and fat novels are too repulsive to sit on my desk. Reading influences the psyche, and thus your writing shows the signs of your reading habit. They say it is important to learn, and even more important to unlearn things.

 

Do you ever face adversity for being a writer? Are you humiliated or have you been unfairly criticized?

 

I have my share of negative reviews of my work, but then who I am to justify! I have never paid my reviewers, neither did I influence them in any way. Dustin, why don’t you tell the world about how I managed the notes of appreciation (blurbs) from a few American poets in relation with The Earthen Flute? I was fairly surprised when both Jonathan Moody and Lorna Dee Cervantes wrote on my work, entirely based on the merit or quality of the manuscript.

 

I was bullied in school at times for being bookish and was considered a teacher’s pet, and sometimes teachers themselves thought I was weird. I never fit in to the in-crowd. Years ago, I had a neighbor who believed people who read were ugly and stupid. He insisted that on his trips to the library, he saw only old people or ugly women. It was extremely insulting, but I practiced my usual “Christian forbearance” and was kind until he was evicted from the apartment complex for assaulting me (after a long series of mishaps, the manager was tired of him as well). I think with a head of tough wisdom (not the earthly kind, but philosophical like Ecclesiastes) you are bound to writhe some days. I haven’t had harsh critiques from publishers or reviewers, and most other poets have a favorable attitude toward my writing. This has been a life-long pursuit for me, beginning when I wrote a short story called The Little Red Wagon, written from a child’s imagination. The story was about a young man who loses a wheel off his wagon, and searches for it all day only to find it at the day’s end where he least expects it. I developed a strong sense of the calling at a young age, taking advice from my grandmother on both reading habits and approaches to writing. In your opinion, what is the greatest thing to be proud of as a poet?

 

Honestly, I have no idea. You know, I once asked Bibhas Roy Chowdhury why a poet feels insulted when he/she is referred to as writer. He told me, “Poet is the highest adjective available to a writer.”

 

What other writers you admire? Who is currently on you “to read” list?

 

I have a long list that starts with Tagore and ends with you, Dustin. I would prefer not to take their names, for they are admired on the basis of their poetry. I’m now reading two books: When God Is A Traveller by Arundhathi Subramaniam, and The Daunting Ephemeral.

 

Does writing serve a purpose for non-writers? Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once said the secret to his success was writing every day. How do you think writing can help those who aren’t writers?

 

Ask a psychotherapist and you will understand how writing helps an individual in his/her day-to-day life. Writing helps in more than one way to combat stress, depression and mental blockage. I must tell you, Dustin, I used to write uncountable love-letters to my girl-friend who is now my wife.

 

What is literacy like in India? What type of literature does the average Indian read?

 

India is no exception, we love to value fiction stories more than any other genre of literature.

 

Finally, is there still a sense of the sacred in India where much of the sacred was born?

 

India is a holy land; the land of spirituality. Even now we have a handful of realized souls, and I am proud to have been associated with a few of those Masters.

 

 

 

Slam Poetry as Ritual by Melissa Rose, organizer and performance poet

Slam Poetry Rules:

­3 minute time limit­

­Original work only­

­No props/music­

­5 Judges are selected randomly­

 

 

I found my voice on a slam stage when I was 15 years old. Stepping on that wooden platform in Campbell, CA in a theatre packed with cigarette smoking, loud mouthed twenty somethings and way past my curfew I had no idea what a poetry slam was. I just wanted to read aloud the rushed words I had been filling composition notebooks with. To validate my angst and get applause. After I finished my poem and walked back into the darkness with the other spectators, I knew that something changed in me. That when the audience applauded it wasn’t because they liked me, but it was because they understood what I was saying. That they connected with me in a way that was impossible in other contexts. I could express myself in conversation, but onstage, my voice carried a sense of importance.

 

I find that people gravitate to poetry slam and connect with it for different reasons. I’ve seen audience members watch poetry shows for years before deciding to step on the stage and take some limelight for themselves. To make their own voices heard. That’s part of the magic of the art form. Anyone can do it. Everyone’s voice is valid. Everyone has the opportunity to say what needs to be said. Despite the judging, slam has crafted its own space in the literary world uniquely; with poets who can perform just as well as they can write. Poets, who can connect with an audience emotionally through their authenticity. Slam blends theatre, literature and activism into a real­world real time experience of short performance art. The judging is just a side piece to the main course. A gimmick to keep the audience coming back. Poetry Slam is about storytelling and reflection. Slam poets have a wonderful ability to hold a mirror up to society and force it to see itself.

 

In my 15 years in the slam poetry scene I have seen the art form grow and change with the times. Slam poetry has gone from coast to coast and beyond the United States; changing and evolving depending on the local culture and its needs. In recent years, the scene has changed again with the popularity of Youtube and for the first time, people who have never been to a poetry slam in person can finally see what all of the fuss is about. From the comforts of one’s computer screen, slam poets and slam poetry has been offered a platform where the audience stretches far beyond the confines of a crowded bar or theatre… to the millions. Websites such as Everyday Feminism and Upworthy regularly feature slam poetry as a way to convey information about important current events, social insights, and powerful personal stories.

 

I’ve had a hard time convincing others that Slam Poetry is considered a valuable form of literary art , let alone a form of literary art anyone had even heard about. 10 years ago when I  described myself as a slam poet, I was dismissed by other writers and academics who found the art form “too theatrical”, or didn’t understand the art form at all. To this day, the term “slam poetry” is still easily defined by outsiders, but not fully understood. In his article “Slam Poetry Does Not Exist”, Chris Gilpin brings to light that in recent years the term “slam poetry” itself has become it’s own genre of poetry in the minds of the mainstream:

“The negative impacts of adopting the term slam poet are far ­reaching. The idea of a singular, formulaic genre called slam poetry creates an artificial barrier for those who would like to share their work at a slam because it gives the impression that they are writing the wrong kind of poetry if it doesn’t sound like everyone else’s.”

 

Gilpin notes that with more exposure, “slam poetry” is now used as a way to describe a singular style of performance poems, making the culture and scene more visible, but less accessible as a result. The constrictions of what people expect “slam poems” to sound like in the contemporary scene make it more difficult for poets who don’t “fit that mold” to feel like it is a place and a space for their voices . Gilpin himself mentions how some of his students don’t think they can even participate in a slam because their poems don’t “sound” like slam poems. Simply put: what a slam poem is is always open to interpretation. As long as the poet and the poem fit the requirements of the rules, it is a “slam” poem and they are a “slam” poet. Slam’s strength as an art form may be its ability to challenge molds. From the start, Slam Poetry and the world of literary writing have butted heads. Some slam poems might resonate well on paper, but Slam is something that has to be experienced to truly understand. It is, much like live theatre, an experiential art form.

 

While many of the poems written for slam can translate well to the page and visa versa, the live performance, the poet’s voice and body language add a dimension to the poem itself that cannot be felt as strongly on paper. This is why traditionally, most slam poets in the American slam scene memorize their work instead of reading off paper. While no props or costumes are allowed on stage, there is no rule against utilizing microphones, mic stands or using other innovative performance techniques such as back flips and walking through the audience in order to make the message of the poem more effective.

 

Good poems, like many other art forms, evoke a strong emotional reaction from the audience. I’ve experienced poems that have caused just as much anger and outrage as they have caused healing and dialogue. Slam poetry in the United States tackles a multitude of subjects. Technically, nothing is off limits, but in general, the art form in the USA pays close attention to current events, social awareness, and self-reflection. Poets may use the platform to tell a story, or voice an opinion, or to simply have a few minutes on stage to engage with an audience. Not everyone uses the slam art form for therapeutic reasons. Some (like myself) do and have used it this way. As the child of an abusive and addicted household, I found that expressing the aftermath of those experiences not only helped me process them objectively, but by performing those pieces in front of others I had the opportunity to engage in a cathartic experience and truly be at peace with what I had gone through. Audiences going into a poetry slam might identify with a poet or the story they are telling and find catharsis through experiencing that with the poet together, forming a strong human connection. This act itself can be a healing event for an entire community. Storytelling itself is a powerful tool for social and personal change. Caren S. Neile explains this power in her essay “The Gate of Heaven”:

“If we consider that a storytelling audience is, as noted earlier, a co­creator, sharing ownership of the storytelling event, we see that the audience is an active­­and essential­­participant in the storytelling ritual….A storyteller requires an audience to complete the ritual”

 

Academic research has proven that writing is therapeutic, but other disciplines such as Drama Therapy has shown that performance is just as powerful in processing events and trauma. We as communicative creatures can blend both into 3 minutes of power, declaration and ritual through the poetry slam experience. Whether you are on stage or observing the poets who are, you are participating in the experience. Slam is in fact a ritual. The details might be a bit different depending on where you are, but the same structure proves that this is more than just a “show”. Slam poets are spellcasting. A good slam poet can make you feel exactly how they want you to feel. They can communicate their message in a way that stays with you. That changes you. That makes you think differently. The true power of the art form is the poet’s willingness to be vulnerable, and the clear focused moment when a message is communicated with truth and authenticity.

 

 

About the author:

Melissa Rose has been performing her poetry in the United States and Europe since 2001. She is currently the Executive Director of SIREN, a non profit organization that uses spoken word to empower teen girls.

Interview with Ryan Guth, author of Body and Soul (Lummox Press, 2015)

What led to the creation of this book? What inspired the idea?

 

It really began as a series of conversations with my primary source, an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse, whom I have agreed to keep anonymous. But the stories I heard in those conversations are themselves the inspiration and the foundation of my book. I have fictionalized where necessary for my own artistic purposes (and to protect my source’s identity), but my ultimate goal has been simply to express the emotional and psychological truth of those experiences.

 

Is there a purpose for the mingling of playacting and poetry in the book?

 

You know, my publisher asked me the same question. It’s probably the most demanding aspect of the book, from a reader’s point of view, so I appreciate the opportunity to explain what I was after. My character Cassandra, as an abuse survivor, suffers in adult life from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). This condition manifests as a splitting-off of “alter” personalities whose purpose is to help carry the emotional load, the burden of remembering and responding to physical and emotional trauma. Thus, she has an unusually complicated relationship both to present reality and to her own past. She often has trouble understanding or articulating her own motivations, and sometimes detaches completely, imagining herself from an external point of view as if through a camera.

The piece titled “Part of the Show” illustrates several of these DID symptoms. It’s presented as a parody of cheap, sensational true-crime TV shows — the ones that feature supposed documentary footage or re-enactments, interspersed with “after-the-fact” interviews. The piece focusses on an episode from Cassandra’s days as a home-care nurse many years earlier. One of her patients, “Andrew,” is a would-be painter who’s had no success or recognition for his (admittedly mediocre) work. He’s also dying of AIDS. At the same time, Cassandra is being pursued by a modelling agency, the owner of which sponsors an annual art show featuring local talent. That owner has a sexual interest in her as well, which she uses as a bargaining tool to get her patient some exhibit space in the show. She genuinely wants to give Andrew some validation of his artistic ambitions before he dies, but she’s also presenting him to make a statement of her own, to shock the pretentious high-society crowd attending the exhibit. So poor Andrew ends up being part of two different “shows” – Cassandra’s as well as the owner’s. As she recalls this incident, she wants very much to believe she did the right thing for the right reasons, but worries that she only subjected him to gratuitous humiliation. Her self-doubts are presented in the voice of the modelling agency owner; however – as the “host” of the TV show points out – his character is only “a simulation, based on Cassandra’s own recollections.” In other words, the entire TV program is simply one of Cassandra’s dissociative episodes. She can’t bring herself to question her own actions, so she creates a version of the agency owner in her mind to ask those questions for her, and she further distances herself from the memory by framing it in the TV-show format. Within the premise of that “show,” Cassandra and the owner are never in the same location or the same camera shot, so she’s never put in the position of having to respond to her accuser.

 

Then there’s the long closet-drama, “Truth be Told,” which forms the climax and denouement of the book. “NO REVEALING THE ENDING!,” you said – so I’ll try to avoid spoilers. This piece dramatizes the surfacing of yet another repressed sex-abuse memory, this one tangled up with a drug-murder that her father was involved in when she was a child. After studying police and court records for the murder case, the adult Cassandra becomes convinced that some testimony she remembers giving about the abuse incident may have been deliberately expunged as part of a plea bargain. This possibility is so emotionally debilitating that she creates two additional alters, “manifesting as a pair of police detectives,” to relive the investigation and re-examine it for her.

 

What spurred the idea for the Southwestern myths in Body and Soul? Were they intended to shape the plot, or symbolize an implied thought?

O'Keefe

More the latter, I’d say. Take the short poem “La Loba” – it’s inserted into the narrative sequence at a point where Cassandra has physically returned to the scenes of several scarifying memories, in order to confront and memorialize them (the “FOUR STONES” sequence). In the midst of this emotionally draining effort, she happens to recall the wolf-woman legend. Perhaps she sees herself “knitting new muscle, / new skin and fur,” like the bones in the poem. Perhaps she herself is trying “to Become.” It’s also no accident that the figure of La Loba in my poem looks and acts a lot like Georgia O’Keeffe – another southwestern symbol of life-affirming female strength.  I think of that poem, at that particular point in the book, as a kind of pep-talk Cassandra is giving herself.
“La Llorona” works in much the same way, but reflects a darker patch in Cassandra’s life. She’s deep in addiction, deep in debt to her dealer and sleeping around, so her husband has left the state with their son to get away from her chaos. At this low point, she imagines herself as a new incarnation of “La Llorona” — the weeping woman, outcast and self-punished for killing her children.

Llorona

 

 

The book blurs the boundaries of fact and fantasy. Other than this lack of distinction giving shape to the protagonist’s personalities, is there a higher symbolism you are trying to achieve? Is Cassandra perhaps reflecting a deeper religious truth?

 

Cassandra’s devotion to a “divine strong female presence” does sometime takes the form of identifying herself with that goddess figure, as in “Aretalogy” or “All Like Poetic and Shit.” For the most part, though, I see that fact/fiction blend more as an expression of her DID… although it could be symbolic as well, now that you mention it. The disintegration of a single personality into separate alters is obviously a self-destructive act, but at the same time it’s an imaginative coping mechanism, a way of trying to manage the emotional load of traumatic memories. Ironically, the disorder could be a symbol of the sufferer’s desire to survive and overcome.

Speaking of symbols, someone at a reading asked me about the name “Cassandra” — was it a nod to the Greek myth about the prophetess whose warnings weren’t believed? “Absolutely,” I replied. Then I went home and looked her up, because actually I’d chosen that name purely for sound and rhythm. I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never heard of the mythical Cassandra, but sometimes the Universe gives you one for free.

 

How did James Joyce figure into the book’s creation and structure?

 

He’s all over Body and Soul. The “play” sections, which we discussed earlier, are directly inspired by Joyce’s use of dramatic form in the “Circe” episode of Ulysses, and for exactly the same purpose – dramatizing psychological states, “exteriorizing the interior,” you might say. The short piece “Recessional,” at the end of Part III, was actually conceived as a continuation of Joyce’s novel, which ends with Molly Bloom thinking about (among many other things) making eggs for her husband’s breakfast the next morning. Ulysses takes place on June 16; my “Recessional” is dated June 17 – which, as it happens, was the actual date of the incident described in the piece. Did I mention that the Universe sometimes gives you one for free?

 

Joyce’s so-called “mythic method” – infusing a naturalistic character with mythological overtones – is also behind my borrowings from southwestern lore, which we’ve already talked about.

james-joyce

Aside from Body and Soul, I would like to ask about your educational background.

 

My M.A. is from West Chester University, where I studied with poet Chris Buckley. At the University of Cincinnati I studied with Andrew Hudgins and Don Bogen, and my creative doctoral dissertation was the basis of my first book, Home Truths (Alsop Review Press, 2006).

 

Do you think an education in Creative Writing is useful for writers? Can it be harmful? Some criticize writing courses as “hammering originality out” or making the student like the teacher. What is your take on this?

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I’ve had both harmful and useful experiences, fortunately in that order. As an 18-year-old college freshman, I was told by a bullying professor that “nobody writes about mountains and lovers anymore.” When I disagreed, he advised me to do two things: give up writing, and leave his program. The second piece of advice was pretty good, so I guess he wasn’t a total loss.

 

My graduate instructors, on the other hand, were fine teachers as well as acclaimed poets – gifted with the ability to understand or intuit what their students wanted to accomplish in a given piece, and even to explain those intentions — sometimes better than we ourselves were able to articulate them. And they understood the trap of what Hudgins himself referred to as “the workshop poem” – that is, the stereotypically careful, correct little piece that makes no missteps because it takes no chances. We were actually discussing a draft of mine at the time, and I took it as a compliment that he thought my piece didn’t fit the stereotype.

I understand you conducted intense research to write this book. What did you learn from it? How did the research factor into the creation of Cassandra and her story?

 

In terms of the book itself, research mostly served to give me additional insight into the experiences and responses described by my source. There is one passage in the book, however, which is based solely on research. In the second introductory poem, “Too Pretty,” Cassandra feels a brief (and very uncomfortable) moment of sexual desire when thinking about her grandfather, who has just died. I’d read that abuse survivors sometimes feel such sexual attraction to their abusers, but I found the possibility so hard to credit that I followed up on it with a clinical psychologist who works with abuse victims. He corroborated what my written sources told me, so that passage stayed in the book even though it was not part the material my source provided.

 

In terms of informing my own life, I suppose the most important thing I learned was to trust a survivor’s story. It’s very hard – nearly impossible in many cases – to get to the full truth of what happened. The abuser lies, the abuser orders the victim to lie, other family members are carefully manipulated into assisting with the cover-up, so memory distortions and gaps get a good firm hold. All of that teaches the survivors not to trust their own remembering. To work through all of that for the sake of whatever truth CAN be established, and then to have that truth dismissed or disbelieved, can feel like a wholesale negation of the survivor’s desire to heal. Terribly, sometimes irreparably, damaging.

What advice can you offer to writers who want to break from the small time?

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I’m never sure what “small time” means, or if folks who write poetry ever manage to “break” from it these days. If you want attention for your work in your own lifetime, you have to promote it pretty mercilessly – before, during, and after any publication — which can take time and energy away from the work itself. Posterity, on the other hand, only cares about the quality of the materials and the workmanship. You have to decide which is more important to you, and learn to live with the consequences. I’ll let you know if I get there.

 

How did you establish a connection with Lummox Press?

 

Lummox Press was listed in both “Duotrope” and the Poets and Writers database of publishers — both of which I heartily recommend to any writers — so I figured the cross-listing was a good recommendation in itself. I corresponded with the owner, Rd Armstrong, for a couple of years before I submitted a query. I also bought and read several of their titles, and had several poems from the book published in their journal. Over time, I developed a pretty clear idea of the kind of work they publish, and it seemed to be generally in line with what I was trying to do in Body and Soul.

 

How long did it take the book to be released after it was accepted by Lummox Press? Were there any obstacles you faced once the book was in their hands?

 

About two years from acceptance to release, which is pretty typical for small presses. The first year was just waiting for my turn – they try to put out 10-12 books a year, and sometimes there’s a backlog. The second year was taken up with editing, design, and proofreading. Not to mention the chore of securing permissions for the few short quotations that appear in the book. There were originally several dozen of these, mostly from the world of popular music, but the process was so tedious and time-consuming that I cut most of them. Note to self: NEVER use pop-song quotes again!

 

What sparked your interest in writing? What do you feel is the highest reward for writing a book?

 

I was reading by myself at the age of three, and started writing at five. It’s much more than an interest, or an urge to express myself, or to contribute to the Canon of Literature. Writing really is how I make sense of the world, and I don’t know how functional I’d be without it. I think eyesight would be much easier to give up.

Highest reward? Feeling the words and phrases finally click into place, usually after 15-20 drafts of a piece, over a period of years. Which is probably why I think in terms of books and sequences; if one piece isn’t going well, I can turn to another part of the project and still feel like I’m making progress that day. Now that Body and Soul is actually in print, I find that gaining the interest of attentive readers such as yourself is also highly gratifying.

 

Do you imagine Cassandra ever got the answers she sought?

 

Your question tells me that the conclusion is doing what I intended it to – i.e., implying that there won’t ever be any final, objective confirmation of her own memories. She’s fully examined and exhausted the available evidence, and the answer seems to be that there IS no answer. It’s even possible that more incidents and abusers will resurface; remember, she thought that was over with at the end of Part III. But at the end of Part IV we see her just beginning to understand – and even to make peace with — that lack of certainty. Whatever questions remain, she’s sober, she has her “Ted,” and in that final image she’s making a place in her own adult life to care for the frightened, friendless child she remembers being.

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Are there a lot of cases of sexual abuse forgotten by victims, only to be remembered in later years?

 

First, let me say that I’m nobody’s expert on this subject. My sense of it is that the repression of memories isn’t universal, at least not to the total extent of Cassandra’s case. But erased memories are far from uncommon.

 

Will Cassandra make another appearance in a newer work?

 

The arrangement between my source and me ended with the completion of Body and Soul. We are no longer in contact.

 

Do you have plans for another book?

 

Oh yes! Another “mixed-genre novel,” tentatively titled Livings. Time: 1845-1850. Place: an isolated industrial village in the north of England. Characters: the famous Bronte family of writers, four highly gifted, highly-strung adult siblings who for various reasons have failed to establish themselves in the outside world and now find themselves back in their childhood home with their father, an elderly Anglican pastor. One of the siblings is something of a theologian, one is an eloquent and inspiring feminist, one a pagan nature mystic, and one is a drunk-slash-opium addict. Imagine the possibilities!

 

 

Ryan Guth’s book Body and Soul is available here: http://www.lummoxpress.com/lc/body-and-soul/

 

 

Interview with Alina Stefanescu, Romanian-Alabamian poet

1) You have mentioned you are interested in Darwinian theory. What role does this interest play in your latest writing?

 

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My first chapbook— Objects In Vases— came together as a series of poems partly in response to what I sensed in the surrounding culture. Intelligent friends who swore Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. I was amazed, incredulous, and disturbed by the extent to which self-help has a become a siphon for limited thinking and conformism.

Socialization, the process by which we learn and internalize cultural norms, fascinates me. Pop ev-psych has picked up where Freud left off. It explains our deepest sentiments through reference to animal instinct, a standardized emotional repertoire, boilerplate stuff. Ev psych does not help me understand anyone I have ever met. Instead, it sheds light on our culture as well as vulnerability to naturalistic fallacies.

Humans differ from other mammals in the extensive helplessness of infants and children. This period of socialization accounts for cultural similarities— our constructions of masculinities and femininities, our notions of success and failure, our early acquiescence to competitive status seeking— as well as differences among cultures.

2) Tell me about your recent poetic efforts. You attempt a comparison between those things we hold sacred (flags, ritual, taboo) as being like a vase we can’t touch. What inspired this metaphor?

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I was born in Romania. In 1980, my parents defected from Ceausescu’s communist dictatorship. Raised in Alabama, I straddled two cultures– the rich, warm, effusive Romanian language of home and the pragmatic, success-driven, somewhat prudish (or reticent) environment of American southern life.

Growing up a hyphenated American alienated me from a slip-on identity— school peers were at pains to remind me that I was not born here, that I could never be like them, no matter what I did to prove the opposite. For example, a guy in my history class announced that Alina could never be president of the USA even though she was a naturalized citizen. This insignificant detail amounts to different levels of citizenship for Americans. I think even convicted felons can be elected president as long as they were “born here”. Being born somewhere else means you can play at democracy within certain limits— and as long as you know your place. A

But being a perpetual non-native liberated me as well. Freed me to see the parts of self worn as convention and culture. Freed me to observe the differences between what was good in Romania and what was good in Alabama. Freed me to acknowledge alternate versions of piety or wisdom. I became a collector of cliches and superstitions. I learned to admire the objects in vases, and to understand the object OF vases. What they preserve. Identity.

3) Have you thought about your obsession with the vase? What makes it central enough to you to use it as poetic device?

As a female, you get stuck with vases. I have a collection of anonymous vases in the kitchen, many of which came free with flower deliveries. One day it struck me that I didn’t use vases correctly— my vases were not burgeoning with tulips like Martha Stewart’s. Instead, my vases held colored pencils, paintbrushes, knickknacks, and the occasional drink. This simple image of an everyday container which bears our Sunday best— the way we want to be perceived by others— fascinated me. This relationship between the poems and what they “contained”— assumptions, implications, associations, and again, socializations— was intriguing.

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4) What cultural differences are there between Romania and the American South? Which do you prefer and why? Is there something you prefer about each region?

As a “Romanian-Alabamian”, I am guilty of loving both. Perhaps, to some extent, I am a traitor for refusing to choose between the two. To honor one land first. Better a happy, enchanted traitor than a human who silences half her heart.

Romanian and Southern culture share an affinity for hospitality, warmth, and ritual— a life driven by meals, extended family, and long porch conversations. On the other hand, Romanian culture, especially in Transylvania and Wallachia, has developed over thousands of years so it has many traditions, rituals, and legends that Alabama hasn’t had time to develop. Unless you count civil war reenactments. I leave the civil war reenactments to skilled writers like George Saunders, whose CivilWarLand In Bad Decline is a must-read for fiction writer considering the American South.

5) How does being both an immigrant and a stranger in America reflect in your poetry? 

Children learn who they are from their surrounding culture. A little girl learns fairly early that she needs breasts for boys. Most of media we see portrays breasts for the purpose of attracting males rather than nursing infants. In the same vein, boys are instructed in the fine art of catcalls and meat-market comparisons by billboards which show men watching women with beer in their hands. As if men lack human substance or creativity.

When my son was just learning to read, I had to answer lots of questions about our billboard landscape. On a drive, he saw billboard for breast implants— “Mom, why would women have their breasts cut open to stick stuff inside their skin?” He was horrified. I tried to give a neutral explanation about how females do it to feel “good” about themselves— like getting hair extensions or a perm— but he wasn’t having it.

“No woman cuts off her breasts for herself,” he insisted. His ongoing questions and horror forced me to see the world afresh— like an alien anthropologist from Mars, to paraphrase Walker Percy. My conclusions: “Whoa, this is one crazy culture in which part of the population is driven by self-loathing while the other part is driven by false notions of entitlement.”

The sacred things in Alabama— the things we I could not touch— did not include a human body or a individual life. Most were symbolic objects— images that don’t bleed, perhaps icons. For a few of the poems, including “Strong Female Voices”, I adopted a different voice— the voice of a woman standing near the table warning her kids not to touch the vase. Not to break it. To preserve the vase from damage or harm requires us to place the vase out of reach. To forestall any form of interaction with it. To render it holy and untouchable.

Playing with that voice (voices, really), the vase is a form of power. A way of being held captive. Among strangers, in a crowd, I am beheld as a homeschooling mother of three. They behold me as such. I am not free to act very far outside the limited scope of what is beholden to a homeschooling mom. Men in power don’t perceive the homeschooling mother of three as a threat. Like the girl in the Pixies song, she’s “tame”, harmless. In this sense, I am safer than a young black man when it comes to police but I am more “vulnerable “than a young black man by virtue of being female. Beheld as needing protection. Beheld as an object to violate.

Authority, like power, provides us with control but also the ability to injure. A form of responsibility in the gaze of the powerful— in how they see us. William Gass has a great insight in his essay on Robert Walser. He says: “The power that others possess is something that, like a great outcropping of rock, may fall upon you; but it also makes a shade under which you may find shelter.”

We find shelter in the vases. We hide behind the power projected by others. We offer a Nuremberg defense for the horrors done in our name. We put the popular vases on the table to conform, to be a part of things, to participate. We value them. And we tell ourselves it’s “natural” because it’s what everyone does.

Then we view the vase. Participate in the viewing. Tell the kids not to touch.

6) Did visiting Romania create a surge in poetic outpourings? Did you feel more at home there, more rooted in its culture?

1989 changed my life. I visited Romania for the first time since my parents defected in 1980. It was incredible— I met my extended family, and discovered the world was bigger than Tuscaloosa. Being “weird” was no longer a negative– I was happy to be the weird. The world was weird and fascinating and amazing.

7) What journals have you been published in? Do you see any points of similarity between the journals you have been accepted by?

Lacking an MFA, I know very little about the practices of writing as they play out in publishing. I make mistake upon mistake and learn a little more from each. I think the journals which have published my writing are fairly diverse, ranging from the Electronic Encyclopedia of Experimental Literature (the eeel) to Cider Press Review, so I don’t see any points of similarity apart from the honor of their acceptance.

There’s a special place in my divided, disloyal heart for a few editors who really encouraged, engaged, and prodded me way beyond the realm of reasonable expectation. Among them: Christina Collins from Lockjaw (which is one of the greatest journals out there); Erin Dorney and Matthew Kabik of Third Point Press, who nominated one of my poems for a Best of the Net last year, Travis Sharp, Tracey Gregory, and the staff of Small Po[r]tions Journal who published some fairly challenging poems (I’ll be reading at their offsite come AWP); Roxanna Bennett from Matrix who was kind and generous following my mother’s sudden death last year; Luke Hankins of Orison Press who is a beautiful human being and diligent editor— and, of course, Amanda Mays of Anchor & Plume Press , whom I can never thank enough. I haven’t even touched upon the fiction editors and the fiction journals yet….

Honestly, I do not know how editors juggle the reading, writing, meetings, logistics, correspondence of editing with their daily lives, which often include jobs, families, friends, cats, and writing. Anytime an editor takes the time to talk to me is a gift— something for which I am grateful as opposed to something I expect. Have I mentioned how editors (and readers and assistant editors and layout designers) blow my mind?

8) What rewards do poets experience? What most validates your life as a poet?

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Sometimes the costs are easier to count than the rewards. Writing demands a lot from one’s family— a lot depends on my spouse, for example, who accepts my constant distraction, my absent presence at the table. If he expected me to cook dinner or read bedtime stories to the kids, there would be no writing. So I am grateful (and often mystified) by his sacrifice— his agreement to share a bed with a human who is infatuated by a story or a poem, a cloud of words in her head. Everyone is different, but writing does not validate me as a person. Writing is an obsession, an infatuation, a room without walls or limits. It’s a way of relating to one’s self and to the world that defies expectation. What reward do you get when you surrender to the voice calling from beneath the window? Maybe it’s a ride. An impossible terrifying marvelous ride. A tangle and an exquisite torment.

9) Do you have favorite poets? Are there any widely respected Romanian poets?

So many— so many poets who inspire and excite and infuriate and instruct me. Currently, I am devouring everything by Mark Yakich— he has such an incredible ear for language, such a mind for meaning and unmeaning, turns ploughshares into swords under the table. Also William H. Gass’ On Being Blue— not “poetry”, per se, but extremely poetic, paradigm-rattling prose. Gass inspires me to write like no one else. Mary Oliver for grief, Wendell Berry for reverence, Mary Ruefle for life, Adrienne Rich for resurrection. I’ve also enjoyed a recent collection by Alison Prine.

As for Romanian poets, it was Nichita Stanescu who first left my at the foot a line begging for more. Rilke, Rimbaud, and Stahescu got me through high school. Contemporary Romanian poets to watch include Mircea Cartarescu and Maria Calciu, whose words evoke objects and places as if lit from within— I keep looking for the plug or the cord or the trick. Also Stella Radulescu whose delicate, sparse poems render each word somehow holy— I love her dance with the ineffable. One of my dreams is to bring the work of Constantin Virgil Banescu to American audiences. He died much too young with that beautiful voice— he could write a poem on a cafe napkin which sounded thoroughly workshopped. He literally spoke poetry. I translated a couple of Banescu’s poems for jmww journal (http://jmwwjournal.com/Stefanescu1.html) and translation is a challenging journey— a dialogue between a language and a grave— much more difficult than writing one’s own poetry. How to honor his voice and erase my own?

10) Sometimes each country has a unique style of poetic expression, as if the national life creates a distinct temper to the poem. Do you feel your travels and return have effects on your writing? Did the American South teach you anything about humanity, the search for truth, or the nature of beauty? What makes Romanian poetry distinctly Romanian?

I read Romanian poetry the way a child reads the wallpaper from his crib. So much dolor, a persistence of longing that I bring to page but which also, I think, exists independently of my reading. American poetry is diverse, and I don’t want to go on record saying it isn’t about longing but certainly the themes of our poetics include novelty, change, and motion. For me, Romanian poetry conveys the past within the present— words are rich with connotation, very sensual and evocative.

One Romanian word haunts me (a word often referenced by the Romanian literary community in exile), a word for which there is no American translation. The word “dor”, a happy but thwarted longing, a rich canvas of soil, a backdrop for traditional folk music and culture. In Romania, children memorize poems as a general practice. When my parents defected, they had $200 in their pockets and a landscape of remembered poems in their heads. At Romanian get-togethers or extended-family dinners, there was always a person who got tipsy enough to start reciting a poem. I remember hiding in the doorframe watching my grandfather recite “Luceafarul” with his hands clasped behind his back. I remember others at the table crying. This was normal and not unusual.

There is a respect for poetry in Romania that lacks its counterpart here. Seriously, can you imagine what would happen to a southern male who stood up and recited a 100-line poem a frat party or a backyard BBQ? He would lose his hard-won “manliness”. There’s no similar taboo against poetry in Romania. Recently, I recorded my father reading a few Romanian poems I’d selected— his voice broke, the tears came, it was more beautiful and true than I can convey. My kids watched from the couch, eyes wide. I am so grateful for that moment in which they witnessed a reticent Professor of Metallurgical Engineering give himself to the words he was reading. Poetry is for any heart that can handle feeling it.

11) Please tell me about your collection Objects in Vases. What is the source of this metaphor? What are you striving to express? Do you feel the collection said what you wanted, the way you wanted? Were there road bumps in the process? How long did it take to complete the work?

It took about a year for the poems to come together. If I’m allowed to indulge a little abstraction, I might get closer to the concrete stoop of this thing. A poem is like a vase. The vase is there, an object, perceived by the poet. So the reader sees what the poet has constructed. What the poem permits. Some poets are more permissive than others.

To read poetry is to witness an act of perception. To see an act of seeing rather than the object itself. I think this is one reason for the evangelical Protestant’s disinterest in poetry. It is not literal enough for their taste. If you mention Rilke’s love poems to God, the remark is met with confusion— why would anyone write love poems to God? It sounds cheesy, right?

A love poem to God is a painting of God, one person’s enamored perception. Despite their Wednesday night choreographies of scriptural exegesis, despite their continuous focus on textual interpretation, Protestants prefer the object to the perception.

I kept running into a question which implied its own answer: What can I learn from a poem except how another person sees the world?

If what you want is “objective”, then Protestants and science fetishists line up together against the poetic.

What do I want? I want to live in a world of subjects.

12) Do you think love is a powerful inspiration for poetry? 

Love is both the pulse and slit wrist. I can’t imagine writing my way through through a world without the mysteries of love. I can’t imagine preferring the safe standing-ground of security to the self-reckoning enabled by fear. I have fallen so many times but not one of these falls (or the resulting scars) is regrettable. As a human, you learn from the sore places. As a writer, the scars are a seam through which poetry emerges. So love is paramount— love is the penultimate precipice.

13) What advice do you have for poets who wish to write their own collection? How do you think collecting your poems should be approached?

The only advice I have is to write. To write and write and write and when you can’t write another word then read and read and read. Let it happen.

Maybe an example would help. I’ll take a poem from Objects In Vases. “Oscar Dees, No Apologetics Please” was provoked by reading interviews given by a family of Atmore prison wardens. These interviews kept me up at night as I tried to understand Oscar Dees’ perspective. I could hear his voice. I could him justifying the invisible racisms and misogynies. So there’s a voice in my head. And it’s a scary voice. I take a few notes and read the interviews again. And again. Until I feel ready to hear Oscar Dees.

In my experience, both life and study, ignorance and error are the primary sources of so much evil. Ignorance and error are the panties of bad behavior.

Western civilization operates under the assumption that we are responsible for our behavior. This behavior arises from our beliefs and what we know of the world. It is no strain in logic to say we are responsible for the beliefs which underly (and propagate) our actions.

Belief comes from what we put in, what we consume— books, media, friendships, social groups, ideas, conventions, religion, politics, etc. A person who reads Ann Coulter cannot help becoming hateful. She does not choose the hateful thought which flows naturally from the steady diet of Coulter. But she chooses to consume that first word— to find herself attracted to the anger and hatred. To be excited and incited. We are not innocent of the trash we put in our minds if these minds control bodies which can own and use deadly weapons.

Write about what you read. Let the bad stuff drive you crazy. Read the other side of the story. And— if you can’t find the other side of the story— then it’s your job to write it.

14) Finally, does the electronic age seem like the death of manual, tangible art? Will ebooks replace the physical editions? Will bookstores lose their revenue and close? Is the book something of the past, or something fading away? Do you think books will regain their popularity? How can poets promote books effectively?

I don’t think ebooks will replace physical books but who knows? Shit happens. Maybe the world will be a better place as a result. The written word, whether digital or paper, satisfies a deep, visceral human need. As long as we remain homo sapiens sapiens, there will be stories. I look forward to changes in literary mediums. I look forward to archives everywhere. The saddest moment in my life came when I realized I had read every published book by Rainer Maria Rilke. There was no new Rilke for me— I’d devoured him too quickly. I’m willing to engage any medium that offers me unread Rilke. And that’s my hope— that there will be more words and extended access. A world of words everywhere.

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Interview with Nick Romeo, multidisciplinary artist

1) In your interview with Pankhearst, you spoke of “hating humanity.” Are there ever moments when you love humanity by hating it?  [Note: Interview is at this site.]

 

“Hate” is such a mean word.  I should have said immensely despise, utterly detest, or immeasurably abhor.  But there are good people on this planet.  I appreciate Noell, Megatron, Mom and Dad.  Thanks for the help, and support.  Also a mad shout out to Craig Simmons, Laura Lutton, Mz. Misfit, and my fellow gamers Super Slugger, Purple Pancakes, Critical CalibeR, Calrip, and Violent Wedgie. 

 

 

2) What is your prime wish for your career in art?

 

To enslave humanity, and write a book entitled “2084.”

 

 

3) Sometimes I feel that being an artist is a burden. There isn’t much pay, you get a lot of criticism, and sometimes people think you are childish. What is it about being an artist, in your mind, that makes these things irrelevant? What is your motivation for continuing to write, paint, and create?

 

When I watch these documentaries on ‘successful’ people who set up businesses, starting from the ground up selling widgets and foodstuffs (you know, things people actually want)  I find myself wishing that could be me, then I’d be sitting on a beach in Delaware, or a mountain in Montana.   But I really, really, really, really, really, really, enjoy art.  I have considered stopping, and pursuing television viewing while drooling on myself like so many in western civilization, but I just can’t.  I have also contemplated quitting one form of art, maybe computer illustration, so that I could focus on the other arts I create.  I can’t do that either.  It is absolutely fun to create unique expressions, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.  I enjoy all facets of my self expression.

 

 

4) Is there a moment when you feel inspired and start to create then? Is there a process you have created to build a habit of creating new art?

 

No real process to mention.  I do artwork every day, at least something / anything.  I bring a point-and-shoot camera and mini notepad everywhere I go.  It has become natural as eating, or using the toilet.  I wouldn’t say natural as sleeping.  Sleeping is anything but natural.  It takes me 75mg of Benadryl, two cups of warm milk, and 2.5mg of melatonin to get a sort-of good night sleep.

 

 

5) What is the worst comment on your art you have heard? What was your most witty comeback to a critic?

 

About two months ago, I received a message from a journal that my poetry gave Charlie Sheen AIDS – that I killed a TV icon.  I was confused and wrote back “Huh??”  The main editor whom I spoke with on occasion before, wrote back explaining a few things, and apologized.  The journal still published my poetry.  The most offensive part of this account was the reference to Charlie Sheen being an icon. 

 

About a year ago, Noell and I did an art show.  I always mingle with people who attend, thanking them for stopping by and asking them if they have any questions for me.  One person, in a rather brusque tone, asked, “What’s with all these digital works?”  Apparently he didn’t get to Noell’s part of the show – she works in oil pastels.  But I’m always ready for that question, since there are many who think any art made with a computer is NOT REAL art…as if we just turn on the computer and press a button and the art pops out, even automatically framed and matted too.  I spent more than a few moments explaining my process.  The pieces are drawn using mesh and wireframes, then I assign materials (glass, wood, metal) add lights, and pick a direction to view.  These images take a very long time to create.  After my lengthy explanation, he thanked me and told his friends my process too.

 

Several years ago my band received a rather terrible review from an online magazine.  The reason why I even sent them a Cd to review was the fact this magazine gave us an interview.  So one would think they liked us, but the reviewer was someone not really affiliated with the mag and lived in a different state, which we didn’t know at the time.  This guy also mentioned on his myspace page (this shows it has been a few years back) that he’s a fan of Rush, Led Zeppelin, and country-fried rock, which we didn’t know at the time.  So this narrow-minded genius is reviewing a gothy dark electronic music Cd… yeah, it didn’t go well for us.  The magazine emailed me and showed me the write up before it went online and gave me the choice to have it removed, since the editor-in-chief did care about us.  I took him up on the offer, but it ruined our relationship.  This experience taught me to look into the ‘opportunity’ thoroughly before submitting.

 

AND the witty comebacks always find their way into my poems.  Most times being successful is enough to silence any critic.

 

 

6) Why do you think popularity is so important to us social butterflies? The top of the dogpile is lonely and rough. It doesn’t solve our problems. Why do people want their song sung on the roof?

 

Social Butterflies, OR Social Wasps!  If I may quote from a man who had everything: Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.  – King Solomon, Ecclesiastes 2:11.   Life can be so monotonous and boring.  You get out of bed, eat, go to work, come home, eat, and go to bed.  That’s interwoven with paying bills, replacing broken things, all while being insulted for just about every imaginable reason.  It’s refreshing to shake up the routine by creating art, getting published, winning awards, seeing your music on compilations and radio playlists, then creating more art.  It brings color to a gray existence, and when people appreciate it, as in, when they are singing YOUR song from the roof, it makes you feel like you actually matter, and have contributed to life.

 

 

7) I wondered if you could tell me about the sacrifices that go into your pursuit of art.

 

Fortunately I have not sacrificed too much, yet.  My wife is very supportive.  When I lock myself in a room to create, she’s not trying to kick the door down, screaming, “Why aren’t you paying attention to me!”  In fact, she offers kind critiques and advice, since she is also an artist.  

 

I believe we can ‘have our cake and eat it too.’  Sorry for the hyper-cliché line, but if you plan and think critically about your goals, you can still hold onto the things already attained without trading them in.

 

 

8) How do you motivate yourself to sit down and create?

 

I made it a habit.  We all have bad habits, so it’s therapeutic to channel positive energy to a creative process – something that’s mentally stimulating and gives a wonderful feeling of accomplishment.  I channel all those who want me to fail in life, and those who want me to succeed, as a driving force too.

 

 

9) In your own opinion, what is the best poem you have written?

 

The most successful / most published would be “Cradle” (about a group of friends who beat me with baseball bats, and buried me alive), “Hydra 8” (about my trip to the ER due to dehydration), and Prom Date (see the answer to question 10).  These poems are tied for being published in three publications each.

 

My favorite poem is “North-Side Noah.”  It’s about an animal conservatory I set up to rescue abused and neglected animals.  My wife is in the process of illustrating each animal to match the stanzas.  It’s coming along beautifully! 

 

My least favorite poem I wrote is “Self Help.”  When I received the email that a version of this is getting published, I became depressed for several days.  It’s a rather ugly poem, but very real – too real.

 

 

10) You spoke of your poetry being made of “actual events.” I wondered what the poem about Medusa at the Ball reflected in real life.

 

It’s about the horrible, racist high school that I attended, (fortunately it was only one year, but it was one loooooooooong year).  It’s real tempting to mention it by name.  One girl asked me to go to the “Snowball” dance, (dumb name for a dance, unless you can hit fellow students with snowballs) since her boyfriend got beaten up by our schoolmates since he is black – she didn’t want to go through that again.  I was also bullied by these people, so I was quite understanding to her problem.  This situation also helped me think of the movie ‘Carrie.’

carrie1

 

11) Finally, is there any advice you can offer to the struggling creator emerging into the scene? What can you expect as reward for being an artist of any kind? What are the pitfalls?

 

 

If you are creating art for money and fame, stop now, and pursue a career as a lawyer, football player, or ‘reality TV star.’  Create art because you enjoy the arts and want to contribute your heart and inner feelings to the world. 

 

I appreciate discussions and questions raised from my creations, ranging from “This is amazing what was your inspiration?” or, “This is weird and demented, are you ok?”  It’s exhilarating when someone does purchase your expression, and when you see your name in print or on a marquee.  Again, these shouldn’t be the main reasons for creating, but it does seal the fact that your work is valued.

 

Pitfalls: the major one I urge everyone to watch how you spend your money.  Try and streamline your artistic process to keep your costs down.  Also be wary of others trying to take advantage, such as some in the visual arts scene charge a tonnage to display in their gallery, some in the music scene charge to “promote” your band, then of course writers are aware of the world famous “vanity press” people.  Now these outlets may not always be a bad thing, but each person has to get the complete story and see how it can fit with their career, and wallet.  Be patient.  Don’t jump on any and every opportunity that may seem fine without checking into it.  I have been screwed numerous times for jumping first – then thinking second.

 

 

You can read more about Nick Romeo here: www.pittsburghartistregistry.org/accounts/view/nickromeo

Interview with Troy Camplin, multidisciplinary scholar and creative consultant

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1) Troy, you have recently endeavored to release a book from my own press Transcendent Zero Press. Perhaps you could tell us about the book, the process that went into it, and what inspired it.

 

Hear the Screams of the Butterfly is the story of what lead to the nervous breakdown and hospitalization Patric Molny as told by Patric as he is trying to recover. The story is put together by an anonymous friend, who introduces us to the story, and puts in the occasional note through the novella to keep us up to speed on his process of putting the book together from a combination of Patric’s writings in the hospital and rants and poems Patric had written prior to his being committed. The stated purpose of Patric telling his story is help him work through what led to his breakdown.

 

I got the idea for writing this novella from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther – not just the idea of a young man telling the story of his falling in love with a woman he could not have, a plot point Hear the Screams of the Butterflyshares with Werther – but the reason Goethe himself wrote Werther, as a way for him to work through his feelings he had having lived through a similar situation himself. Patric is writing the story to try to help himself work through his feelings and, hopefully, recover.

 

I finished writing the first draft of this novella about 20 years ago, after I dropped out of graduate school. I was studying molecular biology at the time, had grown dissatisfied with molecular biology because I was both bored with it and frustrated that I couldn’t do many of the projects I wanted to do. Further, I was beginning to read more literature and philosophy – Nietzsche especially – and I was becoming more and more interested in becoming a fiction writer. Actually, I had been writing fiction since I was twelve, when I attempted my first book. I had tried to write another novel in college, though it was definitely a piece of juvenilia. And I was writing short stories as well. Naturally, none of these works were very good, with one or two exceptions, but you have to write through the bad works as you learn to get to something good.

 

Other than a few poems and a short story, Hear the Screams of the Butterfly was by far the best thing I wrote at the time. That’s why it’s survived the past 20 years and various revisions and edits. It still managed to hold up, at least in my mind, and so I held on to it. Now, at last, I found a place I thought would appreciate the work, and given that it’s finally on its way to publication, it seems I was right.

 

Given that it was written 20 years ago, my memory on the process that went into writing Hear the Screams of the Butterfly are, to say the least, a bit fuzzy. There is a great deal in the novel that is autobiographical, in no small part because it was such an early work, and I was taking “write what you know” fairly literally. At the same time, I never went into a mental hospital, so I had to draw almost exclusively on imagination for that aspect. More than that, though, I did a great deal of research. Patric in a certain sense “knows” far more than I did at the time, because Patric was writing things off the top of his head that I had to look up. I researched the meanings of dream images, the language of flowers, mythologies of various cultures, the meanings of gemstones, etc. and used that research to try to create a network of symbols throughout the work. These all contribute to the meaning(s) I hoped to create within the work. And of course, it’s based on any number of things I was reading at the time, and to which I make reference in the work, including of course Goethe’s Werther and Nietzsche’s philosophy. So my writing process was really quite involved, if you consider all of the literature and philosophy I was reading and all of the research I did to create the networks of meaning in the novella.

 

2) What are your expectations for publishing this book?

 

Why, fame and fortune, of course! In all seriousness, I just hope I can get a few good readers, readers who will enjoy the novella, perhaps even love it. That’s all any writer really wants: to have people who want to share his attempt at beauty.

 

3) You are an outspoken libertarian. How does that factor into your writing? Also, you are called a “multidisciplinary scholar”. What does this mean exactly? 

 

I would actually classify myself more as a “classical liberal” than a libertarian, and that may not even be the most accurate term, since my ideas are not based on the same kinds of science and philosophy developed by the classical liberals. I make the distinction because libertarianism is a political position, whereas classical liberalism is a more complete world view. Also, there are some things a classical liberal might support that a libertarian definitely would not. The same is true of whatever one may want to call my current world view, which has some similarities as classical liberalism, but is founded on a combination of complex systems theory and spontaneous order theory, fractal geometry, chaos theory, bios theory, information theory, game theory, constructal theory, evolution, evolutionary and cognitive psychology, emergence, Gravesean psychology, J.T. Fraser’s philosophy of time, and similar ideas.

 

In this broader sense, it is impossible that my overall world view could not factor into my writing. I’ve never been a big fan of so-called political art, and I consider there to have only ever been one great political poet: Langston Hughes. The rest make their art subservient to their politics, and that destroys the artistry of the art. Hughes never makes that mistake; for him, the poetry matters first and foremost, and he engages in artistic problem-solving that all great artists necessarily engage in, with his problem he’s trying to solve is the integration of politics into poetry while retaining the poem’s primary nature as poetry. Pretty much no one else manages to do this. Even great poets whose poems are not typically political in nature.

 

That certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t weave in sociological or economic themes. Heck, I even sometimes crank out a terrible political poem. But the best art is always ambiguous in some way, is always slipping away from you the minute you think you have it. Overtly political art fails on precisely this point (Hughes being that amazing exception), and that’s why almost all explicitly political art is crap. As all propaganda, as all kitsch, is. Most simply do not have what it takes to deal with political issues in a way that fosters a variety of interpretations.

 

As I said above, my world view deeply affects my work, as one would expect. My world view is informed by a great many things, and that is why I typically call myself an interdisciplinary scholar, though more recently I’ve come to understand that what I do is more transdisciplinary. Of course, that means I now need to explain what multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary all mean, and what makes them all different. In short, a multidisciplinary scholar is someone who simply draws from multiple disciplines to try to understand a problem, but does not necessarily relate the disciplines to each other in any way. The interdisciplinary scholar, on the other hand, uses various disciplines precisely because there is an understanding of the interconnections among the different disciplines. One sees the interrelationships among the disciplines, and uses the understanding of those shared patterns to understand how to solve a problem. An economist who uses network theory and draws on evolutionary psychology and ecology to understand the economy would be an interdisciplinary scholar, for example.

 

This then gets us to transdisciplinarity. In transdisciplinarity, you see the deep patterns and interconnections among all the different aspect of reality studied by each of the different disciplines and you draw on them all in order to solve problems or understand phenomena not within any given discipline, but rather that cross several disciplines at once. My book Diaphysics is in many ways an outline of the different patterns we see in all of the different levels of reality, from quantum physics to the molecular to the biological, to the psychological, to the social. Given the fact that these levels all share certain patterns and rules, just at different levels of complexity, and given that they all interact with each other in different ways, and given that there are topics and problems that transcend the disciplines, it is important to have this kind of understanding available to open up new vistas in knowledge and understanding. This is my current approach, and it crosses not just disciplines, but cultures and paradigms as well. You can see the preliminaries of this way of thinking inHear the Screams of the Butterfly, even if I have more fully and consciously developed them more recently.

 

4) In spite of believing taxation is theft, do you still think it is a positive thing for government to give grants and fellowships to artists and students?

 

I suppose I should clarify what I mean by the statement “All taxation is theft” before I answer the rest. A theft occurs when someone if forced to give up their property to another party. If you don’t think force is involved, refuse to give up your money and see what happens to you. At the same time, there is a certain subjective evaluation taking place. If you don’t think you’re being robbed, you’re not being robbed, in the same way that a person isn’t being raped if they don’t think they’re being raped, no matter what it looks like. Some people are into rough sex. But even if a majority of people are into rough sex, that doesn’t mean society should force people who aren’t into it to participate. So for those who are perfectly fine with having the government take a certain percentage of their income, no theft is taking place. But for those who do not think that anyone, no matter who they are, has the right to take by force what is not theirs, taxes are a form of theft. More, I’m not even saying that I wouldn’t be willing to give what is currently taxed to support certain things the government does IF they were to ask for it, and IF my giving were entirely voluntary.

 

But that’s all issues of morality and the relationship of morality to government. Most people believe in the legitimacy of taxes, so our governments tax. Now, given the reality of taxation, the question is then whether it is a good thing for the government to give grants and fellowships to artists and students. That is an economics issue. Of course, it’s not really “the government” that gives grants and fellowshsips, but rather some sort of panel of experts who will give away money that had been earmarked for this purpose by the legislature. There are federal, state, and local versions, but it really doesn’t matter what level we’re talking about here, as the decision-making will be mostly the same in each case (though with the local panel, there is at least some degree of local knowledge that they can draw on). Since it is unlikely that the legislators are expert enough to select the experts for the panel, such panels tend to be fairly self-selecting. That is, there is a good chance that the panel will have people who mostly think of the arts in the same way. As a result, most of these panels of arts experts tend to support avant-garde art projects, as that was the dominant paradigm when government funding of the arts emerged in its current form. One result has been ongoing support for avant-garde art projects that have essentially stagnated the arts in Modernism/Postmodernism. This is reinforced by our universities, which also have these same experts teaching the arts, producing more artists like themselves, who in turn become art professors in addition to being artists. So one problem we see arising is the stabilizing of a given paradigm/movement within the arts because of this kind of self-selection. It’s hard to imagine how to get out of this, given the fact that one needs experts to recognize fellow experts.

 

Another and different kind of problem is that the choices made will tend to be conservative ones. The last thing a government agency wants is controversy. That’s a great way to lose funding. (Controversy in the market tends to have the opposite effect, interestingly enough: a good controversy can get people buying more of your art, more copies of your book, going to watch your play/movie, etc.) Any individual or organization who receives philanthropic money, whether it be public or private, is going to do their best to keep the funder happy. That necessarily affects the content of the art. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are many things that contribute to the content of one’s art, and keeping funders happy is one of them. The word “pattern” comes from the word “patron” after all, and artists are bound to pattern their work after whatever their patrons believe in and support. A variety of kinds of patrons – government, private philanthropy, universities, rich spouses, the marketplace, etc – will result in a variety of patterns of content in our arts. Unless, of course, any one patron tends to dominate, in which case we would tend to see the same artistic patterns emerging. The fact that the avant-garde tends to continue to dominate the arts suggests there is in fact a dominant patron, and that dominant patron is the government, though mostly through our university systems.

 

Similar to this problem is the problem of being able to identify worthy recipients. The very people who need money – people early in their artistic careers – are least likely to get the money, precisely because nobody knows who they are. This makes sense, because one doesn’t want to spend limited funds on unknown artists, who may or may not continue to even work as artists. Better, then, to fund known commodities. But if I’m known as an artist, that means I’ve been relatively successful without government funding. Government funding then becomes a reward for being successful in the market. Which seems an odd thing for government money to be spent on. The solution of spending this money on organizations like theaters follows the same basic logic. Do you want to spend government money on struggling theaters, for example, or more stable ones that have been around for a while and have proven their worth? Which needs the money more? Yet, which is the more sensible investment? Even government organizations are loath to continue throwing money at failure after failure. For all of these reasons, government funding tends to reinforce the status quo.

 

Given this situation, I would actually suggest something else entirely. I would suggest replacing all welfare, all payouts, all subsidies of all kinds with a basic income guarantee. With a basic income guarantee, each person would be safe from complete destitution, and many would be able to be in a financial position to pursue their dreams, whether those dreams be art or entrepreneurship. This would be a more indirect way of funding the arts, to be sure, but it would be no more indirect than Faulkner working at the University of Mississippi power plant at night to support his writing As I Lay Dying. We don’t typically think of working a job as funding our art, but the fact is that that is exactly what we are doing – we subsidize our own art work all the time, at least, those of us not independently wealthy. That could be done through a basic income guarantee, which would have the added benefit of freeing up time, which is always a premium for artists. If we want to better fund artists and make sure we are supporting upstart artists, a basic income guarantee is the way to do it. The way we do it now, through grants and fellowships, mostly rewards those who are already established, successful artists, or who know enough of the right kinds of people to get the recommendations needed to get the money. Which, again, only rewards insiders and those working within the current paradigm. If we want to get art out of the repetitive rut of constant avant-gardism, we have to get rid of the institutional structures that maintain it, and that means replacing government funding, direct and indirect, with a system that frees people from having to stick with the well-worn art we find around us today. A renaissance in art will require a renaissance in our institutions.

 

5) Aside from art, we recently discussed Arab Spring. You believed the protests were the result of students who expected jobs that never arrived, even after they were promised by the Mubarak government. Do you think the protests did any good in changing the government structure in Egypt? How does this relate to America’s dilemma with administrators moving into education, and government loans and subsidies fending off other options? How do think opportunity costs effect taxation, and why do you think government should stay out of it?

 

I believe you are referring in particular to my article on the student protests at The Pope Center, “Egypt’s Revolution and Higher Education.” I noted that the protesters were primarily students who had been given a free university education and a promise by the government that they would be able to get government jobs when they graduated. When there were more graduates than jobs, Egypt developed a large pool of highly educated unemployed, underemployed, and upset former students. The results of their protests was the removal of Mubarak and the election of a new government.

 

The question of whether or not the protests managed to create any real change is a complex one. On the one hand, Mubarak was removed, and he had been there for decades. However, he was removed by the military, which is widely viewed as the real power in the Egyptian government. The Egyptian military was the one who ended up, in the end, forcing Mubarak out, and the military retained its position and power in the government afterwards. The election that followed put a theocrat in power, but pretty much all the fears surrounding that turned out to be unfounded because the president was not a dictatorship, and the military was not going to allow the government to stray far from to kind of government currently in place. The main benefit of democracy is that it’s generally unstable enough that there’s not too much order in the government, meaning less can get done than one expects to be able to get done. That’s a good thing, because of the odd chance you might elect a theocrat. More specific to Egypt, with the military still in charge, there was really not much of a change. Still, the desire to keep stability seems to have resulted in the military being a little less tolerant of having someone in place for as long as Mubarak.

 

We have a similar crisis brewing in the United States with student loans. Student loans are a form of “cheap money” that allows people to direct a great deal of money into a single sector, in this case, universities and colleges. When this happened with mortgages, we got the Great Recession of 2008. Cheap money resulted in people buying houses, which resulted in a house building boom. When the boom turned to bust, people lost their houses and houses in construction were abandoned. Construction companies went out of business, and this rippled throughout the economy. Now, when you have cheap money going into colleges, what you end up with is a similar boom, but in this case the boom ends up being in administrators. The number of professors hasn’t increased, and neither has their salaries, which have kept up with inflation. What has boomed has been the number of administrators. The universities become essentially a money-wasting factory with no real increase on your investment. The quality of education is decreasing as well, primarily because when you have an increase in the percentage of the population going to college, you start moving up the IQ bell curve. Universities that used to teach only the very brightest now have to teach pretty much everyone with an average IQ or over. So the quality of education necessarily goes down to accommodate these lower IQ students. Who can all attend college because of readily available student loans. The problem arises when all of these people graduate with degrees that end up not meaning much because everyone has a degree. A college degree is about as useful as a high school degree was 50 years ago. The problem is that the prestige of college remains higher than that of high school, so when students graduate from college and cannot get jobs that pay more than $15/hour, they feel rightly cheated. When looking for someone to blame, they never consider the education they received, the cheap student loans they received, or anything of the sort, but rather end up blaming the people hiring them. Or failing to hire them. Some will make the connection to government, and so you end up with Occupy Wall Street on the Left and the Tea Party on the Right (yes, the Tea Party is as highly educated as is Occupy Wall Street). So far the protests have merely resulted in these fairly anemic expressions of dissatisfaction, but we have to wonder how long this will last.

 

To switch gears to your last question, there is no question that opportunity costs affect taxation. They certainly affect the amount of tax revenues the government takes in. At the most extreme, if taxes are too high, people will calculate that it’s worth not paying them in full in the hopes that they won’t get caught. Even going to prison for a while might we worth the potential savings. Or it might be worth leaving the country and going elsewhere. Or if it is your business being taxed, moving your business. Less extreme, you might spend a great deal of money on tax attorneys and accountants to find every loophole possible to reduce your tax burden. Above a certain rate, it becomes worth looking into any or all of these (and other) possibilities, with the result being that a higher income tax rate can in fact result in reduced tax income for the government itself. You cannot ignore opportunity costs. And it is for this reason that many people call for things like the flat tax or the fair tax, both of which can reduce opportunity costs and thus increase revenues.

 

That being said, there are better and worse taxes. From certain standpoints, the best tax seems to be a property tax. I don’t care for those because that means that the government really owns all the property and you are really just paying rent. And do keep in mind that when you subsidize something, you are encouraging it, and when you tax something, you are discouraging it. Which is why we have high taxes on tobacco, for instance. So when you tax property, you discourage property ownership (except among the wealthiest). When you tax capital, you discourage investment. When you tax income, you discourage work. When you tax sales, you discourage buying (and with sales taxes, you have the problem of it being a regressive tax). At the same time, sales taxes seem the most “voluntary” of all the taxes mentioned – and the regressive feature of the tax could easily be fixed with the aforementioned basic income guarantee. I would also argue that the worst tax by far are capital gains and other taxes on investments, as they undermine investment and, thus, economic growth and innovation.

 

6) Do you think a libertarian society would grant better opportunities to artists, poets, and the like?

 

My answer to this question is in many ways the corollary to question #4, of course. We went over some of the problems inherent in government support for the arts, including inherent conservatism, supporting those already successful, and artistic stagnation. This may not be a problem if we’re talking about Shakespeare Festivals, but it is a problem if we’re talking about the continued evolution of the arts.

 

In the past there were private patrons of the arts who supported artists. These, too, created any number of pressures the artists were often unhappy about. Imagine having to write poems whose topics were developed by your patron. Today, that might mean having to write plays based on whatever stories Bill Gates or Warren Buffet wanted written. Many of the artists in the 18th and 19th century welcomed the rise of the market and the demise of the patronage system precisely because they could then create the art they wanted to create, and they could then find or create an audience from among the general population. This freed the artists of the time. In plays, Church patronage resulted in the production of nothing but religious plays. Shakespeare was able to write on all his varied topics precisely because he had no patrons save his paying audience.

 

The fantastic thing about the market is that it promotes considerable heterogeneity. We are in fact seeing that more and more because of the addition of the internet, which allows people to find common minds even easier – and around the world. An audience is getting increasingly easier to find. To succeed as an artist, all you have to do now is get a strong following of a small number of people, and you can probably make a living. Or at least get by with it and an undemanding job. The market will produce products for any just-big-enough tastes. Go to the grocery store. Look at the choices there of vegetables alone. Beyond the varieties of vegetables, you can get organic or non-organic, fresh or canned. And that’s just vegetables. And if you don’t like the selection at one store, there are many more you can shop at. There is no panel of experts deciding what stores ought to be near you and what foods ought to be offered, and as a result, we have incredible variety. If you want to know what it would be like to be fed by your government, all you have to do is remember what your school lunch program was like.

 

The fact that much of our art is dominated by a single paradigm – avant-gardism – for so long suggests that a homogenizing force is at play, a single institution is dominating the arts. There is no reason our universities shouldn’t have a part to play in the artistic order, but we should be concerned it has such a dominant, overbearing role such that it even overwhelms the market. With two exceptions: film and television. Yes, there are the blockbuster films everyone goes to see, but it is very easy to get to see more artistic films. Especially when videos, and then DVDs, and now streaming movies came about. Netflix for example has not only revolutionized the way we watch movies in our homes, but has equally revolutionized television. They are producing some of the best TV, and that is putting pressure on both cable and the networks to improve their own offerings. We even see the networks starting to show live performances (The Wiz, Grease, The Sound of Music, Peter Pan), since that is something Netflix cannot do. Competition is driving innovation, and the customer is better off for it. And so, too, are the artists. People who really wanted to write more artistic films and television shows can now do so. And we are seeing the fruits of their labors. If we had more diverse institutions in literary fiction, for example – as we have with this magazine, by the way – we would have much more innovation in the arts. The fact that Transcendent Zero Press is a market player rather than a participant in the dominant university paradigm is one reason why different voices are being heard through it. And that is its strength. And that is the strength of the market.

 

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m hardly saying that the market is the one way to do things. There is also a role for private philanthropy. There are certainly those out there who want to support the arts, and who are willing to make donations to theaters, organizations, and small presses. Efforts need to be made to connect these groups to increase such giving, but the support is out there. Further, there are things like Kickstarter and other sites that allow people to crowdsource funding for their work, and for people to support project they find interesting. It’s a great way to truly democratize arts funding, because not everyone can support an artist on their own, but they might be willing and able to send a little money to an artist whose work they like. Right now we are on the cusp of many fantastic opportunities for artists to get support for their work, and the internet is the primary driver of it.

 

7) What is your writing process like? What stirs your best work?

 

Twenty years ago, I was single and between dropping out of graduate school in molecular biology and starting graduate school in English. So I had lots of time to do lots of reading and writing. Today I am married, have three children between the ages of 4 and 9, and I do freelance writing, editing, and proofreading, so my writing process has become catch-as-catch can – and mostly on the weekends. Also, my focus has shifted considerably. I am now writing far more poetry, and I occasionally write verse plays. The former, being mostly shorter poems, can be written in a short period of time, or here and there. The latter take more time in plotting and writing. For them, I need huge blocks of time to even consider starting to work, and those are increasingly difficult to get for myself. So it’s been mostly poetry of late.

 

Great works inspire. Experiencing beauty makes you want to reproduce it, in your own fashion. When you read a great work and you discover an artistic problem – which may include how to tell this story so it fits today’s context – you are inspired to work on solving that artistic problem. When I stopped trying to express myself and instead focused on solving artistic problems, I discovered that my works improved considerably.

 

I have also discovered that I use different genres for different purposes. I use prose fiction to try to figure out something for myself. What I’m figuring out may be something emotional, something social, something cultural – I may hear about someone doing something and wonder how they could have possibly done that. So prose fiction is typically my trying to work out something, to try to understand it. Playwriting, on the other hand, is very different for me. When I write a play, I have typically figured out something, and I am seeking to figure out how to present it, how to stage it. This is an artistic problem of a different sort, of course. I not only have to figure out how to say it well through my characters, but I also need to figure out how to be true to each and every character, to make each one complex and interesting. Truth before ideology, always. In a real sense, there are no villains, because no characters ever think themselves villains. They are doing good, as far as they are concerned, and you have to always be true to that fact. And of course, there are always staging issues, movement of characters, and that sort of thing. Further, I tend to go out of my way to make sure I’m solving artistic problems by writing almost all my plays in verse – sometimes blank verse and sometimes in rhyming couplets, and sometimes in varying styles – and I introduce elements from other times and places. I have used the idea of the ancient Greek satyr play in two plays, and I have used the basic structure of Japanese Noh plays in another. Yet, these plays are almost always contemporary in nature, taking place in the present or recent past.

 

This then leaves poetry. My stimulus for writing a given poem is almost as varied as the number of poems I have written. I may be inspired by a physical landscape or an individual flower, a fragment of conversation, another poem (of course), a random thought, a frustration, love, curiosity, boredom, stupidity, music, a mathematical theory, silliness, stubbornness, anger, a daydream, the play of light on the window of a train I’m riding, joy, or fascination. The purpose is always to capture the beauty of the thing, the beauty of the moment, and to allow the form and content to co-create each other. The form often finds itself in the writing, even as the form structures the content. Which is why I write in form more often than not, as it forces me quite often to say what I could not have otherwise said, think different thoughts, and find the poetic truth through the phonemes.

 

8) Do you think it is an artist’s duty to understand his/her society, to challenge it, and to question its values?

 

Yes. But…

 

I believe that it is the artist’s duty to understand his or her society because art is always in service of beauty (even purposefully ugly poems are a response to beauty and thus in service to it). Truth is at the level of understanding; facts are at the level of knowledge. Philosophers deal in understanding; scientists, including social scientists, deal in knowledge. The combination of knowledge and understanding is beauty, and so, since artists are in the service of beauty, it behooves artists to try to gain as much knowledge as possible, to find the areas of wonder in the world that remain, to discover the degree of wonder that necessarily remains in the world in this age of such widespread knowledge. Further, it requires understanding as well – and understanding is always involved when dealing with anything as or more complex than yourself, which necessarily means other people and cultures, societies, economies, etc., one’s own and others. Further, only when you have come to understand them can you truly challenge your society. You need to understand history as well to do this.

 

And you need all of this for the same reason that poets ought to read as much poetry as possible, and keep reading poetry all their lives – so they can discover what has yet to be said and/or new ways of saying it to make it new. Unless you know what’s been done, you don’t know what needs to be done. In terms of art, you challenge the art that was by being as completely familiar with that art as possible. You need to understand what people did, and why. You have to read it all with an open mind, so you can discover why it is people were writing as they were writing, what they were trying to discover in their creations. You may still come away not liking a given poem or poet or style, but you should still be able to appreciate what they were trying to accomplish. And the poet is only ever always trying, trying to say, trying to find new ways of saying, trying to find the right word, the right sound, the right rhythm. If you could ever accomplish the saying, there wouldn’t be a need to write another poem – the pen would be forever put away. But we can’t, so it won’t.

 

So the artist is always a challenger. One is not creating art by saying what has already been said in the way it’s been said. Nor is it art to say what cannot possibly be understood. The artist must work on the edge of the known and the unknown, opening up the unknown to everyone. The edge of order and chaos is where all creativity takes place, whether it’s in nature, society, the mind, or in creating the work of art. This is why the artist is always working out an artistic problem – this is the fundamental nature of art itself, this working out of artistic problems. Not self-expression, which inevitably results in the same things being said the same ways over and over, but rather the working out something that can only be worked out in a poem, in a novel, in a painting, in a sculpture, in a symphony, etc. This makes the artist a member of the artistic order, in the same way as inventors are members of the technological order because they are trying to work out technological problems, and entrepreneurs are members of the economic order because they are working out how to get goods and services to people in the best, most cost-effective way possible. Philosophers work out philosophical problems, scientists work out scientific problems, philanthropists work out philanthropical problems, etc. It’s the same in every social order. And in none of these cases is anyone seeking to “express themselves.” A scientist trying to express himself is no longer doing science.

 

So when an artist is working out an artistic problem, there is always already a challenge to existing values – particularly, of course, artistic values. But art has content as well, and that content is typically a challenge to a variety of other values. There is no story without a problem, and the source of problems can be person-to-person conflicts, social conflicts, conflicts with nature, etc. or some combination thereof. The storyteller then is always in a position to challenge society. But, as noted above, that creates an extra burden for the writer, who then needs to master the natural sciences, the social sciences, philosophy, economics, political science, sociology, psychology, literature, grammar, syntax, and on and on. But only if they want to truly, deeply, fully challenge those aspects of reality in their storytelling.

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9) What advice do you have for an artist trying to stay alive in today’s world? What approach do you think will grant them the most success?

 

Work, work, work, work, work, work, work. And get yourself out there. Promote yourself constantly. If you’re a painter, work the galleries. And do your research so you’re not wasting your time trying to get into a place that has never represented anything remotely like what you do. The same is true with writers. Write constantly, and do your research to try to find outlets that are open to what it is you’re doing. There is still always a risk, because you never know why someone turned down your stuff – sure, they may have simply not liked it or not thought it that good, but they also could have been in a bad mood or recently had a show or published something very similar recently. So don’t take rejection personally. Just keep working and keep submitting as much as possible.

 

And keep in mind that you’re working in the gift economy. That is, you are working to create gifts for others. Deep down you know that to be the case. At the same time, one does have to make a living, and the value of something is quite often measured in dollars. Not the full value, to be sure, because the person buying your work has to value it more than the money they are parting with, and the artist has to value the money more than the work they are parting with for there to be a transaction at all, but some measure of it. And you have to be willing to let people express their valuation of the work that way because, once they have made their investment in the piece, they will in fact show how much they value it by, in the case of visual arts, displaying it, or in the case of literature, reading and rereading it.

 

10) Do you think print-on-demand services have helped the book industry? Have they helped the authors at all?

 

They have certainly helped the book industry because it reduces waste, which reduces cost. Before print-on-demand was available, publishing houses had to be sure there was going to be enough demand before they would be willing to buy a work to publish it. They would do runs of several thousands, and if they sold well, would do another run. Thus we have first editions, second editions, etc. of books. With print-on-demand, books can be printed at the rate people want to buy them. This means that publishers are able to take more risks, since if a book doesn’t do well, they don’t have to print the next copy. It seems to me, then, that print-on-demand services are going to be very beneficial to authors as publishing houses realize that they are not taking the same kinds of risks as they had in the past.

 

11) Do you think agents are necessary to insure success in writing?

 

While I did say above that you really have to get yourself out there, the fact of the matter is that there are benefits to specialization. If I’m having to try to sell my book to publishers, I’m not writing. Historically, the author-agent-publisher situation hasn’t been ideal, because often you have to first get some things published before an agent will pay you attention, then you have to hunt down an agent and try to find one that is interested in what you’re writing and with whom you can get along, and so on. This alone is as troublesome as finding a publisher.

 

The internet has a great deal of potential to change this. So far it hasn’t – that old model is well-entrenched – but there is no reason it needs to remain that way. Imagine having a platform on which you could download all of your works without anyone being able to read them and agents putting in their information, and having the online platform match authors to agents. That would be the ideal situation, and there’s literally no reason it couldn’t be done today with the current technology. It needs to be done for the benefit of authors and agents alike.

 

12) What purpose do the arts serve in human life? Faulkner remarked in his Nobel Acceptance Speech that arts can be a pillar for human survival. 

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The arts present to us concepts as perceptions. Anything represented in art of any genre is necessarily idealized. As such any given work of art presents an ideal to us which we are invited to emulate in our experiencing of it. In minimalist art, for example, we are invited into a quieter space away from the increasingly more complex society in which we live. In a story, we are invited to empathize with the various characters, which in turn creates greater empathy within ourselves. The more we learn to empathize with others, the wider our moral circle expands to include different kinds of people, and the more moral we become. Naturally, the more inclusive we become of other people, the more likely we are to seek out peaceful solutions to problems, treat people as ends unto themselves rather than means, and appreciate the complexity inherent in human life and our societies and cultures. Now, if that is not a pillar for human survival, I don’t know what is.

 

Aristotle said in his Nicomachean Ethics that virtue aims at to kalon. The Greek word to kalon can be translated as either “the good” or “the beautiful.” To the Greek mind the two are related – and the two are in fact related. Can a work of art truly be said to be beautiful if it is not good, meaning well-crafted? If we say someone is a good writer or that we have read a good poem, do we not also mean that what we have read is beautiful, that the writer has created a beautiful work? The beautiful work of art, the beautiful depiction of human beings in works of literature, even of their bad attributes, their follies, their shortcomings, work to create ideals at which we can aim, to make ourselves more virtuous. With the good character, we aim to be more like her; with the bad character, we aim to avoid his mistakes. Thus do all depictions of all kinds of people provide us with models at which we can aim, to try to become more virtuous. Certainly if art can make us more virtuous, as I believe they do and can, the arts certainly serve an important purpose in human life. They make us more human, make us more comfortable with more complexity, help us see more and more complex patterns, and as a result make us more understanding and accepting of others. These are the very things we need if we are to continue to survive, and not just survive as living things, but to survive as fully human.

 

13) What are your expectations for Hear the Screams of the Butterfly?

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I have fewer expectations than I have hopes. I hope it will do well. I hope it will speak to people. I hope it increases understanding and empathy.
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14) Do you think creative expression is essential for life’s fulfillment? What role do the arts play in an average person’s life?   

 

I think creative expression is essential for the fulfillment of some people’s lives. But I don’t think it’s fulfilling for most people’s lives. That sounds horrifying to what is almost certainly an audience of almost nothing but creative people, but if we step away from the people who surround us, who are typically people just like ourselves, and really pay attention to what everyone else is doing, you will see that what I’m saying is true.

 

While in reality we have a spectrum that extends from pure copiers (completely uncreative types) through varying degrees of creativity to what one could consider supercreators (people like Goethe, Shakespeare, Mozart, et al), we can also group them into pretty clear categories. I would predict that if we grouped people according to copiers-relatively creative, we would get about 20% of the population as almost pure copiers with almost no creativity in their lives at all, and 80% of the population who engage in at least some sort of creativity. Equally, if we relegated creativity to only regular artists and inventors, we would get about 20% creatives and 80% copiers. This 20-80 split is found throughout nature and society. In pretty much every economy, 20% of the population holds 80% of the wealth, for example. Who holds the wealth varies considerably depending on the kind of economy one has, but the split tends to hold. When it varies from that split, the economy tends to collapse. This is an expression, as I said, of a natural relationship known as a power law distribution, and the 20-80 ratio is the simplest expression of the power law.

 

You may also note that way I proposed to split society actually results in 20% high creatives, about 60% moderate creatives, and 20% uncreatives/pure copiers. The golden mean ratio – the simplest kind of fractal, is expressed as the ratio 1:0.618. It may be no coincidence that the middle group, then, approaches or may even match that ratio as a percentage: 61.8%. Dynamics societies tend to have fractal geometry, power law distributions, and to exist on the border of order and chaos. A stable yet creative society would then need a core of conservative copiers (the orderly group), various degrees of creativity in the majority of the population, and another core of the kind of high creativity we find in artists and inventors (the truly chaotic group). In other words, most people do not need to be creative in the way artists need to be creative. If they were, society would fall apart from ceasing to be coherent at all. At the same time, if everyone were a copier, society would stagnate and eventually collapse into entropy. We need the full range to have a stable society in which creativity is even possible.

 

The role of the arts, then, is to provide the challenges to the status quo both within the arts and within the culture, society, etc. needed to keep society dynamic enough to remain stable. That is, they have a liberating effect, liberating people from the threat of ossification and stagnation. Things need to change to keep things stable. And the arts in part perform that role. Further, the arts provide a challenge to us to aim at the beautiful/good (which is also the true, as Keats tells us, and the just, as Elaine Scarry tells us) so that we may be more virtuous. And virtue, as Aristotle tells us, is a golden mean ratio between two vices. The one vice is often the very ideal the arts provide us as models (art is always immoderate), but at which we must aim to hit the target, while the opposing vice is the gravity that pulls down on us, dragging us, when we aim high, down to the target so we can in fact hit he bull’s-eye. So long as we don’t mistake the ideals for the real, as something which should be truly, fully achieved, but rather treat them as ideals at which to aim, but which can never be truly, fully achieved, can we live a life of virtue. Which is to say, we need to be wise when we experience the arts and not mistake art for life. For the light needs shadow, lightness needs gravity, order needs chaos in order for there to be true beauty in this world.