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Monday, November 15, 2010


Peter Bakowski BENEATH OUR ARMOUR, Hunter Contemporary Australian Poets, Melbourne, 2009, 79 pages.

BENEATH OUR ARMOUR is Peter Bakowski’s sixth collection of poetry and was recently short-listed for the C.J. Dennis Prize for Poetry in the 2010 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards. The book consists of thirty-one excellently crafted and remarkably varied portrait poems.

The portraits in this collection are of real and imagined people and many have been previously published in literary journals over several years. The poems cover a wide range of historical periods, perspectives and voices; as diverse as a gulag inmate (‘Portrait of Pavel Shalamov, Magadan Labour Camp, Siberia, April 1952), a sales executive (‘Portrait of Leonard Drysdale, district sales manager, Birmingham, England, 1946’) a thirteenth century aging warrior (‘Instructions to horsemen, Krakow, Poland’), and a traveling blues musso (‘Blues’).

These are deceptively simple, free verse portraits. In the book’s introduction Bakowski explicitly states his intentions as a writer, ‘My aim as a poet is to write clear and accessible poems, to use ordinary words to say extraordinary things.’ In a recent interview with Bakowski (which appears below), he emphasizes the point that clarity is of paramount importance in his work, ‘The apprenticeship is life-long. To choose, test, arrange words. To write clearly. To reveal without word fog what you have to reveal.’

On the question of style, Bakowski succinctly expressed to Ralph Wessman in an earlier interview what he hoped to achieve as a creative artist: ‘More than anything, I’m trying to be visual, attempting to be a painter with words. A very influential quote for me in a book of essays and memoirs to do with Charles Bukowski was along the lines of, there’s all these books analyzing, dissecting writing and literature, I don’t know what all the fuss is about, writing is painting. Those three words are a lighthouse effect for me, which I try to keep in view when I set sail upon the page’ (Famous Reporter #30

This striving for visual clarity is certainly reflected in ‘Bernard and Monique’, a third person narrative poem about a young French couple who specialize in robbing expensive villas. After a maid is killed during a botched burglary in Paris, Bernard undergoes plastic surgery to hide his identity and temporarily moves to Stockholm with his girlfriend. It is the lure of  money and Bernard’s love for Monique (he didn’t want her ‘to go back to whoring’) that spark their renewed surveillance of properties during their day trips between Monaco and Cannes.

Bernard had a new face in a new town
but the same old cravings.
Cars, clothes, restaurants,
a little cocaine sometimes.
They all cost money.

Although Bernard and Monique are criminals, as readers, we empathize rather than judge or condemn them. They share an emotional bond and an engaging back story which Bakowski creates in a few sparse fragments, in a matter-of-fact way.

As the title of the book BENEATH OUR ARMOUR suggests, Bakowski is attempting to get to the heart of what it means to be human, especially when people loosen their ‘armour’- their habits, their pretense and are revealed for what they truly are underneath-  in all their vulnerabilities and strengths. In the interview below, Bakowski explicitly states the central focus of his work, ‘No matter how many books I write in my life time they'll all be about what it's like to be a human being. This is my life's work. As a poet I remain enthralled by how human beings are a mixture of tenacity and vulnerability. It's tragic and heroic. I have empathy for the struggles of the human being.’

Some of the poems are written with a tone of regret and aimed at capturing strong-willed people at vulnerable points in their lives. In ‘Portrait of Cyril Connolly, critic, at 53 Bedford Square, London, June 1949’ the influential critic Connolly (1903-1974) reflects on his failure, not only as a writer, but also as a person:

The authority I bring to writing
I cannot bring to my life.
This leaves me poor,
staring inwards
at lovers who flee from my reach.

‘Albert Anthony Lee, Hong Kong architect’ traces the gulf which exists between Albert’s simple but rich childhood and the emptiness of his present job:

Years since you painted a watercolour
of carp and pond,
bridge and river.
Construction blueprints demand your scrutiny.
Contract for Asia’s tallest building.
Apartment with top shelf whiskey,
barren bed.
Skyline that rivals New York, Shanghai,
pills to help you sleep.

A bulk of the poems in this collection are about creative people: painters (‘Dougal Nunn, painter, as described by Dennis Arden, publican, Enniscrone, Ireland’), writers (‘Sylvia Plath writing in her journal, 23 Fitzroy Road, London, February 1963’), a sculptor (Arthur Marsden), a musician (‘Blues’), a portrait artist (‘Caspar Morton, portrait artist, talking about his life and work’) and so on.

Many poems dwell into the creative processes of artists to provide insights into how talent, inspiration and the experience of daily life all blend in the mix to create powerful and uplifting works of the imagination.  In ‘Arthur Marsden working on a sculpture of the writer Edgar Bowers’ the sculptor describes his process:

I love stone, working it,
the sound of the hammer against the chisel,
chipping away, the form appearing.
I forget the clock, forget to eat.
I’m a pair of eyes, looking, absorbing, deciding.

In ‘Portrait of Verna Yan, crime fiction writer’ the reader experiences Yan’s sense of detachment and how she is able to blur real events in her imagination to reveal how she shapes the storyline and characters of her latest novel:

moves towards her bedroom,
gets into bed,
thinking about the new chapter
who will appear in the next chapter.
She’s decided his name
and whom he’ll kill first.

Similarly in ‘Portrait of Elizabeth Smart, writing her novel By Grand Central Station I sat down and wept, Vancouver Island, Canada, July 1941’ is written from Smart’s perspective. She is pregnant and creates word portraits of her lover, the poet George Barker and his wife.  The poem focuses on the novelist reflecting on her domestic life and shows how an ordinary event can fuel the creative process:

I return indoors
to the writing desk,
the story of our triangle,
our love a lit fuse.

Some poems in this collection are auto-biographical which provide a more personalised perspective on Bakowski’s portraits and shows how his identity has been shaped through his experiences. He explores his early childhood (‘Of fathers, books and libraries’), his young adult life as a backpacker (‘Hand me my travelin’ shoes’) as well as his writing residencies in China as a mature and accomplished poet (‘Macau days’).

In ‘Scenes from childhood’ Bakowsi imaginatively recreates how he was first told by doctors that he had a hole in his heart. In ‘Macau days’ the speaker sits at his desk, presumably Bakowski, and contemplates the blue stapler on his desk, whilst ‘a rooftop crane hoists a girder’ from his window. In ‘Of fathers, books and libraries’ he provides the reader with a personal account of his reading history:

At the age of twenty-eight I went travelling for seven years.
In cheap rooms in San Diego, Paris, London and Khartoum,
I read books by John O’Hara, William Faulkner,
John Fante, George Orwell and Primo Levi.
In those books it was
What a character faced,
How they responded, viewed themselves and the world,
That kept me reading till dawn.

In reading this volume you get the impression that Bakowski has pain-stakingly crafted every single word in this book. His language is pared down and minimal in its use of metaphor. The clarity of the writing has an understated profundity.

Bakowski has a colossal imagination and each time he begins a poem he attempts to say something new.  His poetry is refreshingly egoless & its ongoing inventiveness delivers the longevity it seeks.

INTERVIEW WITH PETER BAKOWSKI (concluded 15 November 2010)

Q1: Peter can you briefly explain your first experiences with poetry and how you initially became interested in writing it?

Answer: I was an avid reader from the age of eight when my father took me to my first public library in Walpole Street, Kew. The library seemed a holy place, hushed and reverent. I didn't borrow any poetry titles. Poetry didn't enter my thinking. Adventure did. I loved any fiction to do with faraway places - distant planets, tropical islands, the exotic, the alien. I borrowed and read all the children's science fiction adventure stories of Angus MacVicar and Captain W.E. Johns. I was also an avid reader of comics. Everything from Richie Rich to Magnus, Robot Fighter. My first exposure to poetry was Walter De La Mare at primary school and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Elliot in high school. I didn't read ANY poetry out of school hours. In my late teens and early twenties I started reading The Beats. If we talk about reading a book changing one's life, for me it was reading Jack Kerouac's "On the Road". It made me want to go out of the road, which I did, extensively, in the 1980's. Thus I wrote my first poem in 1983, in response to receiving a Dear John letter from a Melbourne girl, while I was staying at a record collector friend's farmhouse in Waco, Texas. There was a manual typewriter at the farmhouse and using it, I wrote a cry-of-the-heart response to receiving that letter. I consider that poem, "Amelia", published in "The heart at 3 a.m.", my first serious/proper poem. Because of that Dear John letter I had no wish to return to Australia. I hitch-hiked across North America, caught a freight train across Montana, lived in a cave on the Mexican island of Isla Mujeres, walked, hitch-hiked and travelled by bus, lorry and train through Egypt, Sudan and Central African Republic. My own adventures, my own experiences, my own observation and thinking gave me
poems. In the early 1980's I began to read the poems of Charles Bukowski properly and extensively. His poetry taught me that you could write about the urban, the inside of your room,
the inside of your head and heart and you could do so directly and honestly with no obstacles or fog in your writing. I taught myself to write poetry by sitting down at a typewriter, feeding a blank sheet into it and trying out words on the page. A poet's material is what they experience, see, think, sift and can imagine. A poet is a observer, a thinker, an explorer. I consider that to be a creative person one must be alert to the world and remain so.

 Q2: On your blog BAKOWSKI POETRY NEWS you mention that you ‘served an eleven year period self-imposed apprenticeship in writing’ with your best work being included in your award winning book In the human night (1995). Can you sum up what you learnt about writing and people during this formative period?

Answer: I learnt the value of facing a completely blank page. I learnt the value of facing a completely blank page on a regular weekly basis, each Monday, where I allocated the whole Monday to writing. I really promote the idea of regular protected writing time. Keep the mind, the senses in training. Facing a blank page is a mixture of being focused but calm even if the subject matter is difficult/personal. It's about openness. Face the blank page. Be open and non-anxious. No negative voices saying "I have no ideas. I have no good ideas. All I've written recently is lame etc".

I learnt that each word has a hue, a power, may be used well or poorly. I always ask myself, "What am I trying to say in this poem and have I said it clearly and strongly?"
In my self-imposed apprenticeship I wrote poems about literary and artistic heroes - Charles Bukowski, Billie Holiday and Janet Frame. No matter how many books I write in my life time they'll all be about what it's like to be a human being. This is my life's work. As a poet I remain enthralled by how human beings are a mixture of tenacity and vulnerability. It's tragic and heroic. I have empathy for the struggles of the human being.

The apprenticeship is life-long. To choose, test, arrange words. To write clearly. To reveal without word fog what you have to reveal.

Question 3: Your book BENEATH OUR ARMOUR is focused on character studies of a wide variety of people. Some poems are auto-biographical, others are based on historical figures, others are based on your residencies in China. How did you decide which historical characters to write about? How extensive did you have to conduct your research?  At what point did you decide to collect your poems under this one volume?

Answer: The historical figures I decide to write about are individuals that I find intriguing, whose lives have been "tidal" - a lifelong cycle of creativity, alertness and self-awareness versus self-destructiveness, years/periods in fog, darkness, self-delusion. I try and reveal the epic, heroic, tenacious nature of this individual struggle while not losing sight of their vulnerability, human fears and anxieties. In revealing these individuals I do so without judging them.

I research a historical character properly. For example, in writing the portrait poem of Sylvia Plath, I read several biographies of Sylvia. In fact I read the biography, "Bitter Fame" twice. I also read a biography of Ted Hughes and a biography of Assia Wevill, the woman that lured Ted away from Sylvia.

I've been writing character-driven poems my whole writing life. I decided after the publication of "Days That We Couldn't Rehearse" to focus in my poems on what I call "the sacredness of the individual". What continues to fascinate me is the individual response to an event, personal or global.

The variety of human responses to crises, changes, ruts and life is what I try to reveal in portrait poems of individuals.

An individual is not one self. I believe a person is many selves. A person may surprise or dismay themselves constantly.

The best painters in painting a portrait seek to reveal the essence of that person. This is what I'm trying to do in portrait poems. Reveal a human being yet no label, no category, no assessment.

I spent five years writing BENEATH OUR ARMOUR.    

Q4: In your preface to BENEATH OUR ARMOUR  you state that your ‘aim as a poet is to write clear and accessible poems, to use ordinary words to say extraordinary things’. To what extent do you consider you have been successful? As a general guide for other readers, who else is achieving this odd combination of clarity and profundity today in Australia or elsewhere?

Answer:  My primary focus on clarity in my poems is something I believe in to my core.
I'm trying to reveal, to be visual without fog, cloud, obstacle or stumbling block.
I'm trying to communicate what I see, what a character in a poem sees, feels, thinks.
I want the poem to be direct, allow the reader entrance.

When I read a difficult or obscurist poem in a newspaper or a magazine I get fatigued,
walk away from the poem or I get angry at the poem. The result is that I don't finish reading the poem.

I feel my chosen path of clarity has been successful. My first book, "In the human night" won the 1996 Victorian Premiers Award for Poetry. My latest book, "Beneath Our Armour" was shortlisted for the 2010 Victorian Premiers Award for Poetry.
I continue to get positive feedback regarding my poems from the general public. If the general public, individuals between 16 to 88 appreciate my poems, then I consider I'm on the right track.

I'm trying to write poems that are worth reading, that the reader or listener may find truthful, thought-provoking or humorous.

Plain-speaking poets I read and re-read are Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, Raymond Carver,
Charles Bukowski and Stephen Dunn. Interestingly, they are all North American poets.

Q5: In re-reading your first collection In the human night there appears to be a huge leap forward in the maturity and sophistication of your more recent work, yet it can be argued at the expense of the spontaneity and experiment of your word play. How do you respond to this statement?  How has the style and subject matter of your poetry evolved over the years?

Answer: I believe a creative person should move forward. As Robert Frost said, "Make your next poem different from your last."

Having now written poems exclusively for 27 years, I'm trying to be more visual in my poems without over-describing. I'm also writing more character-driven poems where the voice, the beliefs and perspective of the narrator belong to the narrator rather than myself. The character-driven poems allow me to get away from the "I, I, I, me, me, me" poems.
I'm trying to be tighter in poems, write seamless poems, where the reader can't see the stitching.

Having practiced writing poems for 27 years now I hope I'm more in control of the poem, no leaving the focused road of the poem, but at the same time I like to still briefly let go of the steering wheel.

My first book of poems, "In the human night" is peppered with abstractions. I'm now an-anti abstraction guy, saluting Ezra Pound's advice, "Go in fear of abstractions".

Similarly, since "In the human night" I now never use a simile. There aren't ANY similes in my last two collections, "Days that we couldn't rehearse" or "Beneath Our Armour".
My current thinking is that I want to write poems about individuals, real people I've researched or individuals I've created. The individual and their internal wars remain a key interest, also the drama of an individual's self-awareness versus their self-delusion.

Since the publication of "Beneath Our Armour", I've written several dozen two line poems,
influenced by my long held interest in aphorisms, quotations and proverbs. Concentrating on these aphoristic two line poems has been a way for me to wear another hat beside the portrait poem hat.

I only look back over my shoulder at past poems in that I don't want to repeat myself, fall back on "Bakowskisms". 

I'm focused on writing the best poem I can while allowing the poem to be the camera of the poem, where the reader sees what the camera of the poem sees, not the person using the camera.    

Q6: What general advice would you give to talented young writers of poetry?

1) My advice is to write clearly. When writing a poem always ask yourself "What am I trying to reveal/say in this poem and have I revealed/said it clearly and strongly?"
2) Read other poets, examine what they put in and leave out.
3) When you write a poem check that the poem has an engine, a momentum that keeps the poem moving forward.
4) Question the adjective. Ask yourself whether your adjective actually adds to the line, adds to the poem. The overused adjective will do the line and the poem more harm than good.
5) Remember you are trying to create pictures in the mind's eye of the reader/the listener.
6) Check that the world you've created in the poem is visible without over-describing.
7) Seek your whole writing life to widen your subject matter.
When you sit down to write a poem, don't go "Oh migod, I'm writing a poem with a huge capital P." Writing a poem is a mixture of focus and calm. Any anxiety/any negativity about your writing capabilities when facing the blank page will close your mind to writing that day.
8) Poetry is sculpture. Get rid of any/all non-essential words from each line. Give yourself a dollar for every word you can get rid of.
9) Continue. Persevere. Remember that no writing time is wasted. You may make huge piles of dirt and slag before you get to the gold.
10) Mine your life experience, the pivotal/significant moments in your life. They are not trivial. Don't cosmeticize or sentimentalize the past or a relationship or a person.
11) Write poems where the narrator/main character of the poem is of the opposite gender to your own.
12) Realize that you will remain a student of words and language your whole life.
13) Set up weekly protected writing time and stick to it. 

Thanks Peter for taking the time to explain your work in such detail.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

BOOK REVIEW-Wolfgang Carstens-Crudely Mistaken For Life

Wolfgang Carstens Crudely Mistaken For Life. Epic Rites Press, Sherwood Park, Alberta 2010, 93 pages.

This is the first collection by Epic Rites Press founder Wolf Carstens. The language of his poetry is clear, unembellished, and highly accessible. Like most contemporary underground poets, he writes narrative poems in free verse/ lower case from his own point of view. The main focus of this collection is on Carstens’ fascination with death. This review hopes to explain that death to Carstens is, what ironically, gives his life meaning.

Death is found everywhere in this book. Mice devour each other in a frenzy (‘mice and men’), a forestry worker is dragged off screaming by a bear and eaten (‘anniversary of your death’), a murdered eighteen year-old is directly addressed by the poet (‘blotting out the sun’), a prairie dog is shot with a BB gun and slowly bleeds to death (‘lapping blood from a small hole’), the poet describes his own botched suicide attempt as a young man (‘uttering of a curse’) and so on.

Death is seen as arbitrary, as ‘always one short step away’ (‘one step away’) and although we fear it and try to conquer it, death is the one certainty we must all face alone.

Many of the stronger poems often begin with Carstens plucking a memory from his past and through its retelling transforming the experience to make a metaphoric comment about humanity in general. In ‘deadbeat tenants’ while delivering an eviction notice, the tenant’s dog wanders onto the street and is killed by a speeding car. The speaker makes a terse, matter-of-fact statement about the inevitability of death in the poem’s concluding lines:

we are all dogs
with a steel bumper
moving towards us

This idea that death is headed unfailingly towards us, is furthered in ‘blotting out the sun’ in which the speaker relates the story of the senseless and random murder of his poet friend Steve, who at eighteen ‘had much living to do’:

make no mistake about it,
there is an Acme safe
falling through the sky –
waiting to crush all of us,
young or old.

He concludes didactically that we don’t know how long we have so we better make the most of it:

we’ll never know where,
or when, it will hit.
it matters not
where we choose to stand.
don’t take today for granted,
or tomorrow- say “yes”
and embrace everything –
even that shadow above you
blotting out the bright sun.

In ‘only the dead’ Carstens presses this point hyperbolically, that the living are unaware of the beauty and sensation of the moment as it unfolds, but the dead are:

the living complain
about aches and pains –
only the dead are thankful
to feel anything at all;   …

only the dead celebrate
every sunrise’
ever kiss,
ever hug,
every orgasm

The idea that we must not take life for granted is one of Carstens’ central messages in this collection. In a recent interview (which appears in full below) he states: ‘As soon as you start taking tomorrow for granted, you are, in a sense, already dead.  Most of us, sadly, live our lives like this. We take our friends for granted, our loved ones for granted, ourselves for granted; we take tomorrow for granted, today for granted, this hour, this minute – we take it all for granted!   We stumble through life like sleepwalkers!’

The title poem ‘crudely mistaken for life’ is explicit in giving the reader a helping hand job in understanding Carstens’ underlying intent. In the back room of a funeral home, the female mortician asks the speaker, presumably the poet, if he has seen corpses prepared for burial before. He responds:

the streets are full of sleepwalkers
with eyes stapled shut, lips sewn shut
to the magic and mystery of blood
and bone living; drained, emptied,
with no sign of a pulse, the stench
of death seeping from their mouths
sleepwalking from cradle to grave
with only brief dreams in between –
crudely mistaken for life.

Carstens expresses the view that most people ‘sleepwalk’ through life, wedded to a routine, they neither embrace nor challenge. He views his book as a wake-up call to those who plod through life: ‘The underlying theme of Crudely Mistaken For Life is about this death that happens long before our bodies decompose and the worms arrive.  My book, if it’s anything, is like Jim Morrison screaming “Wake up!” ’

The focus on death by Carstens is never excessively morbid, but is rather treated in a matter-of-fact, sometimes wry, & ultimately, in an uplifting manner for his reader. He believes that we should not fear death but rather to celebrate and embrace it as part of life. The knowledge that we are mortal beings with a limited life span evokes in the poet an understanding of his own limitations and frailties, and the realization that he himself has taken others for granted & can perhaps, as a consequence, restore and strengthen his bonds with the living. In the interview he says, Most people view death as something that negates life.  For me it’s the opposite – death is what gives life value.  It’s because we die that we should embrace life fully and completely.’

In ‘flowers that count for nothing’ the death of his grandmother Annie brings about a personal epiphany in the poet. As he empties the lint from his clothes dryer, he makes the painful realization that he has been driven by his own selfish desires and has not shown sufficient love, care or empathy for Annie during her lifetime; when it really mattered:

i did not love her hard enough, was not
patient enough, could not forgive her
in all ways that she forgave me.
desperately wanting to wish nothing
different forwards or backwards, i cannot –

so i weep by her grave-stone
offering stupid flowers that count for nothing.

In ‘lines for Betsy’ Carstens describes as a young teenager the cathartic experience of facing death on the back of a bolting hack:

as i remember this now
i’m reminded of those rare moments
when time stood still,
steeped in meaning
and i felt truly alive.

the fistfights,
the car crashes,
the drug overdoses,
the animal attacks,
my botched suicide attempt;
and that thirty minute terror gallop
through the strange trees.

In both of these representative examples, death, or the close encounter with it, is seen as a catalyst for a renewed exuberance for life.

On first reading of this collection, you get the impression that there is a pervading cynical and pessimistic stain in Carstens’ view of existence. In ‘poetry- a nihilistic question’ he states, ‘from the day we emerge/ stupid from the womb/ we are dead men and women walking.’ In ‘uttering of a curse’ the idea that the speaker has his ‘entire life ahead’ of him is seen as a ‘curse.’ In ‘do not resuscitate’ life is depicted as monotonous, where the old ‘welcome a swift/ and decisive end to our senseless existence.’ In ‘a wrecking ball to swing in our direction’ the speaker, sees humanity as a ‘sick joke’ who needs ‘a predator’, like dinosaurs or ‘aliens from outer space’ to knock him off his pedestal and force him to confront his illusions:

if only dinosaurs could return
and show us how flimsy our human constructs
really are –  how stupid we are,
thinking our ideas can conquer
our environment by improving upon its design,
only safe behind locked doors
until a Tyrannosaurus Rex walks
right through our living room walls.

i welcome aliens from outer space
appearing in the night sky
to disprove that bullshit book
the bible once and for all –

He welcomes the destruction of civilization as we know it because it will have a purifying force and human spirit will be renewed. In ‘poetry- a nihilist question’ Carstens plays the devil’s advocate by ironically stating:

the best existence is, in fact,
that of a brute animal;
casting off the shackles
of consciousness, ambition,
awareness –
indulging ourselves
in eating, shitting, fucking,
slumbering beside our latest kill
with dreams emptied
of the hopeless drama of flesh.

Despite the tough exterior of many of his poems, Carstens understands the power of language and memory in transforming people in a positive way.  In ‘tombstones’ his cynicism is stripped away to reveal a touching domestic scene of great sensitivity. To help his young children understand death, he and his wife visit a cemetery to make tombstone etchings. Before visiting their grandmother’s grave, the youngest daughter stays behind and places wild flowers upon the surrounding tombstones:

when we returned only one flower remained.

asked about it she said that she wasn’t here
to only celebrate Annie’s life – but that she was here
to celebrate the lives of everyone who had died.

Similarly, this youthful sense of transcendent joy is wonderfully expressed in ‘all the riches in the world’. After realizing he has destroyed a highly valuable Wayne Gretzky signed rookie hockey card by fixing it to his spokes, he concludes:

i would trade all the riches in the world
to be that poor boy again –
soaring down the street,
young and healthy and free,
with machine gun sound effects
heralding my approach.

A phrase which resonates in my mind from the collection is ‘her cunt stands truth upon its head’ from ‘because she is beautiful.’ Carstens is suggesting here perhaps, that rationality can only go so far in explaining things. Intuition, complex human emotions, & the physical act of fucking, can sometimes better explain who we are. Despite his keen interest in death, Carstens really wants his readers to focus on their sensations, the here and now, what it really feels to be alive in all its permutations. The concluding lines of ‘entry in the cosmic gag reel’ particularly strikes this home for me:

she turned him away
from the bones with her beauty –
instructed him that happiness
was not to be found in stripping everything away
but that happiness was found in her scent, curves,
clothes and baubles, in every trick she employed
to keep the bones so very well hidden.

This book grows on you. Enters your blood.  This is compassionate, carefully crafted poetry fascinating to read and worthy of detailed study. As a poetry publisher, Carstens is highly astute and an obsessively driven entrepreneur the underground press has long been looking for.



“Wolfgang Carstens lives in Mittinhed, Alberta, with his wife, five children, two cats and a dog.  Mittinhed is a small village (population 37) situated in the heart of the Canadian prairies.  It does not exist on any map, is one of the earliest immigrant communities, and was named for ‘touque,’ which is for all intents and purposes, a mitten for one’s head.  The village is primarily a farming community and consists of a community center, a general store and gas station.  Mittinhed received international news coverage in the 1980’s when John Walsh (from America’s Most Wanted) tracked Sean O’Grady, the infamous “Butcher Of Boston” to a small trailer on the outskirts of the community.  By the time Walsh and the authorities arrived, however, O’Grady’s trailer was nothing more than a burned out, twisted husk of metal.  Nobody knows for certain how the fire started or what happened to Sean O’Grady.  He remains, until this day, still at large.  Wolfgang’s poetry and prose is printed on the backs of unpaid bills.  Wolfgang’s first book of poetry Crudely Mistaken For Life was released by Epic Rites Press earlier this year.”


1         In ‘happy birthday Mr. Cool’ you mention that you used to show your poems to your father.  When did you first develop an interest in poetry and who were some of your early influences?

I started writing when I was a kid.  I remember my third grade teacher calling my parents in for a meeting and her showing my parents the poems and stories she had stolen from my desk.  I don’t remember the poems and stories but my teacher was convinced that there was something seriously wrong with me.  I was put into three years of psychiatric counselling after that meeting.  Another memorable incident happened in early 1980 – when I was nine years old.  The city of Edmonton wanted to annex my childhood home of Sherwood Park, Alberta.  In response our city launched the “Save Our Strathcona” (S.O.S.) campaign where residents were encouraged to write a letter to send to the premier of Alberta.  I figured “what the hell” so I wrote a letter of my own and threw it in with the thousands of others.  A few weeks later I received a letter from the premier of Alberta, Peter Lougheed, and later from MLA for Sherwood Park, Henry Woo.  They wanted me to join them in a meeting to discuss the strategies outlined in my letter.  I was only a kid and I never accepted their invitation but the attention my writing received at a young age left an indelible impression on me.  In junior high I stumbled upon the music of “The Doors” and in tracing back the influences of Jim Morrison I happened upon “The Flowers Of Evil” by Charles Baudelaire and “A Season In Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud.  These two books were a tremendous influence on what I wanted to achieve with literature – not so much in content or style, but insofar as both books represented the honest blood and guts approach to writing poetry that is at the heart of my work.  Around that time I was introduced to “Notes From The Underground” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse, and “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemmingway – and I suppose those three books sealed my fate.

2.      How long have you been publishing in the small press and what are some of the more innovative magazines you admire and have been published in?  What qualities do these magazines have that interest you?

I have only been publishing in the “small” press since about 2008.  Most of the work that has been posted online and published in print has been by editor’s request.  To be perfectly honest, I loathe the submission process.  There’s something about dressing my work up in tight pink dresses and pretty tap shoes that disgusts me.  Occasionally I’ll submit work to friends/editors who have launched a new project, as well as encourage Epic Rites Press authors to support their project as well.  A great example is Ben Smith’s  HST has only been in operation a few months, but already it has surpassed the scope and vision of most “small” presses.  There is a HST magazine in the works, a quarterly anthology, merchandise, and original online material.  Ben has taken the bull by the horns here, and I have nothing but love and respect for Ben, and for men and women like Ben, who throw themselves into their press – like so many pieces of meat into the whirling blades of a great fan!  Somebody has to do it!  Somebody has to push the envelope, to be the freak in question, the criminal!  I have the same respect and admiration for Frankie Metro and Diana Rose, whose “Highdra Syndicate” on, delivers bombs week in and week out.  Their radio shows, ranked in the top ten, achieve a very important end – they spread the word about underground literature!  Every week the “Highdra Syndicate” showcases underground literature, whether from magazines, chapbooks, books, or by something they pulled from someone’s blog!  These are the types of individuals/operations that I support:  the first Sunday of every month, for example, an Epic Rites Press author is featured on “The Sunday Brunch Invasion,” a Highdra Syndicate show.  The first show (September 2010) featured myself, the second show (October 2010) John Yamrus – in November they’ll host Rob Plath, then John Dorsey in December.  Next year will feature William Taylor Jr., Jason Hardung, Jack Henry, etc. 

The most innovative magazine has got to be Melissa Mann’s “Beat The Dust,” of which Epic Rites Press was recently featured.  The October issue was a “spoken-word” extravaganza, which featured videos by Rob Plath, John Yamrus, William Taylor Jr., Jason Hardung and myself; audio recordings by Pablo Vision and Casey Quinn; as well as a written interview with myself and the heads of various independent presses.  The October 2010 issue of “Beat The Dust” is a stellar example of the multi-media platform that I always envisioned the Epic Rites website as being!  It was a great opportunity for Epic Rites Press and I have nothing but love and respect for Melissa Mann for making it happen.  The issue is available for online viewing at

3.      As a poet, what is your overall intent?  Comment on your use of technique to convey your underlying concerns.

Writers, at bottom, want to be understood.  Inspiration, for me, involves having something important to say, knowing who (your audience) you are saying it to, and striving to say it well.  There is nothing else.  Just tell your story as honestly and as best you can.  Let nothing tyrannize you.

4.      In ‘crudely mistaken for life’ you focus largely on death.  Why the obsession?  What are you trying to say apart from what you explicitly state in the book that death will inevitably reach us all and that you shouldn’t take life for granted?

“Crudely Mistaken For Life” was a book written in 2009 – when DEATH started hunting down my family and friends and transforming them into memories.  2009, for me, was a year marred by death.  I don’t think death is an “obsession” with me, although it’s something that’s never far away in my thoughts.  Most people view death as something that negates life.  For me it’s the opposite – death is what gives life value.  It’s because we die that we should embrace life fully and completely – because after all, there is an Acme safe waiting for all of us; we never know when or where it will strike.  In my book I talk about Annie, who was ninety-one years old when she died.  I also mention Stephen, who was murdered when he was eighteen years old.  The mistake most people make is in taking tomorrow for granted, like the young poet in my poem “blotting out the sun.”  As soon as you start taking tomorrow for granted, you are, in a sense, already dead.  Most of us, sadly, live our lives like this.  We take our friends for granted, our loved ones for granted, ourselves for granted; we take tomorrow for granted, today for granted, this hour, this minute – we take it all for granted!   We stumble through life like sleepwalkers!  The underlying theme of “Crudely Mistaken For Life” is about this death that happens long before our bodies decompose and the worms arrive.  My book, if it’s anything, is like Jim Morrison screaming “Wake up!  You can’t remember when it was!  Had this dream stopped?”  A recent poem of mine states the book’s intent.  It’s called “life is.”

life is

too short
to waste on
the wrong jobs,
the wrong relationships,
the wrong ideas.

soon enough
you’ll be planted
on the wrong side
of grass.

if you’re looking
for a foundation stone
upon which to rebuild
here it is:
remember that you must die.

be ruthless
in the choices you make,
in the company you keep,
in the pursuit of happiness.

live to the point of tears.

(you haven’t much time)

5.      You are the owner of Epic Rites Press.  Can you briefly explain the events in the lead up to your decision to set up the publishing company.  What happened?  Who was involved?  What help did you receive?

Epic Rites Press was a glorious accident.  In 2008 I bought the chapbook “Tapping Ashes In The Dark” (Lummox Press 2008) by Rob Plath – and it blew my mind.  It was like reading a modern version of “A Season In Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud.  I have reviewed “Tapping Ashes In The Dark” already so I won’t go into the merits of the book here.  The review is posted at for anyone who wants to read it.  Anyway, when I was finished reading that excellent chapbook I sent Rob Plath an email expressing my interest in putting out a full-length feature book of his work.  Rob was down with the idea.  I remember stumbling drunk into my bedroom that night and saying to my wife, “Honey, I did it.”  “Did what,” she asked.  “I just started Epic Rites Press.”  The crazy thing is that I had no idea how to make books, nor any idea where to start.  Nine months later Rob’s “A Bellyful Of Anarchy” was released by Epic Rites Press.

Another artist was initially commissioned to do the exterior for “A Bellyful Of Anarchy” – but when he couldn’t deliver the goods, I contacted Pablo Vision.  Getting hooked up with Pablo was probably the luckiest break that Rob and I could have gotten.  Pablo delivered the awesome exterior for “A Bellyful Of Anarchy” in twenty-four hours.  I was so floored by his work that I asked Pablo to continue doing every Epic Rites Press exterior.  To date Pablo has delivered thirteen exteriors, plus numerous press logos and banners.  Pablo’s work has become the face of Epic Rites Press.  Rob’s second full-length collection of poetry, “There’s A Fist Dunked In Blood Beating In My Chest,” was released by Epic Rites Press this month – and once again Pablo has delivered the incredible flesh wrapped around the skeleton! 

6.      What is the underlying philosophy behind Epic Rites Press?

The intent behind Epic Rites Press is summarized by a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: “Write with blood and you will discover that blood is spirit.”  The kind of writing that Epic Rites Press strives to showcase is writing that is real and honest.  I want authors (to borrow a few lines from Rob Plath) to put “the right word next to the right word” and “the right line next to the right line” – to write “like an ogre is banging on the door.”  I want to publish writing that will pull a jumper from the ledge – or push him right the fuck off.  Ultimately, I suppose, it boils down to oxygen.  Print publication involves the murder of trees.  Trees produce oxygen.  Oxygen is required to breathe.  At bottom everything I publish should be as important and vital as oxygen. 

7.      What are some of the problems you have encountered so far in the operation of Epic Rites Press and how did you deal with these?  Any setbacks?

In the fifteen months that Epic Rites Press has been in operation I have been screwed over by printers, distributors, bookstore owners, editors, authors and illustrators.  The first major obstacle was my first printer, who was a local printer that would print anything and everything – from coffee cups to underwear to books.  She showed me some books her company had done and they looked really good.  Anyway, I asked her if there was any way to protect book exteriors from getting scratched.  She suggested lamination.  Of course, not knowing my ass from my elbow when it came to book production, I was unaware that you should never laminate book covers.  The reason is because they will curl.  The first printing of “A Bellyful Of Anarchy” was with laminated covers – and of course, the covers curled like potato chips!  The problem was corrected in the second (and third) printing of the book  – but, as the book printing “specialist” in question, she should have known better and talked me out of it.  I chalk it up to the school of “hard knocks” but yeah, my ignorance (and those whom I hired) was a definite problem in the beginning.  All printing now happens with my new printer, Pagemaster Publication Services – and I couldn’t be happier with their work.  The second major obstacle was securing distribution.  In 2009 I lost a major book deal with Foyles (a major bookstore chain in the UK) because they would only deal with a distributor!  I contacted Small Press Distribution in Berkeley, California, soon after that deal went South, and when they didn’t respond right away I kept sending emails week after week and month after month until they agreed to represent Epic Rites Press.  Soon after that I landed a major book deal with three New York universities, and with distribution in place, that deal happened.

The only setback worthy of note was the untimely death of Todd Moore earlier this year.  Todd was much, much more that an Epic Rites Press author – Todd Moore was a dear friend who embodied the energy and explosive power of Epic Rites Press!  Todd Moore was dynamite!  We had just released his “Dead Reckoning” and were about to release volume one of his “DILLINGER” in early 2011.  Todd Moore’s “DILLINGER” is one of the truly great poetic masterpieces of this (or any other) century – and when DEATH caught wind of our happiness, it moved right in and kicked us both in the balls!  We had so many books planned: his “DILLINGER,” a book of essays, a novel – but you see (just like those sleepwalkers in my “Crudely Mistaken For Life”) we got too fucking comfortable in our beds!  Here is a new poem (for Todd Moore) called “snapshots of life.”

snapshots of life

i found a digital camera
at the playground.
it had nine hundred
saved pictures on it:
a man and woman
holding hands on the beach,
a wedding,
a honeymoon,
a newborn.

a lifetime of memories.

i went through
one by one
deleting every photo
like death eating
their madly in love
with life.

Those Todd Moore books, so long as I’m breathing, will see the light of day in print, but it’ll never be the same – nothing could replace the day to day correspondence with Todd – or the amount of sheer energy that greeted me every single fucking day!  And ultimately, maybe DEATH will take me down before I have the chance to make good on my word.

8.      What have been some of the highlights so far with Epic Rites Press?

Highlights would include my friendship with Epic Rites Press authors and associates; publishing some of the best underground authors:  Rob Plath, John Yamrus, Todd Moore, William Taylor Jr., John Dorsey, Gerald Locklin, Dan Fante, A.D. Winans, Lyn Lifshin, Catfish McDaris, to name a few; watching John Yamrus reading from “Doing Cartwheels On Doomsday Afternoon” and promoting Epic Rites Press on BCTV.  Working with Rob Plath on the radio is always a highlight!  Rob has, since the accidental birth of Epic Rites Press, become a dear friend of mine – and whenever we get together on the radio, it’s a special time where you can let down your guard and embrace the frothing madman you are 24/7/365!  It’s like “The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” – only to come to the conclusion that Jekyll is dead, and there is nothing left but Hyde.

9.     What essential advice would you give to anyone thinking about setting up a small press publishing company?

Be prepared to invest lots of time, energy and money to promote and market your authors and publications.  Most “small” presses view print publication as the end of the journey, when in fact (as John Yamrus so perfectly put it) it’s only the beginning of the hard work that goes into selling a book.  You can put together the best magazine or book in the world, but if nobody knows about it, what have you achieved?  For a “small” press publisher, in the absence of a marketing staff and a large budget, you need to act like an agent for your authors.  I have invested thousands of hours writing promotions, press releases, emails, etc; not to mention the hours invested in posting online, pounding the pavement, and stuffing envelopes to spread the word about Epic Rites Press.  I’ve been doing this since day one.  In fifteen months over a thousand copies of Tree Killer Ink have been distributed across Canada and the United States, and over fifteen hundred books have been sold.  Whenever I mention these “small” press victories, people say “that’s awesome” like it’s some great achievement or something – but seriously, it’s only the tip of the iceberg!  I want to sell hundreds of thousands of books and magazines every year!  Also, in the absence of a big marketing budget, “small” press publishers need to use the many free online services at their disposal.  They can, for example, build a kick-ass free website with Weebly, put out press releases and announcements through places like Biblioscribe, Scribd, as well as market their products through free services like Youtube, Blogtalkradio, Facebook, Twitter, etc.  Any success in the “small” press will involve massive time, energy and commitment.  The numerous “small” presses that fold up their tents every single day is testament to the hard work and commitment required to make it in this business!  As Bon Scott put it, “It’s A Long Way To The Top If You Want To Rock And Roll.”

Thank you so much, George, for the interest, the excellent questions, and for the opportunity to further explain the madness that is Epic Rites Press!

– Wolfgang Carstens

Epic Rites Press: "because all our fingers are middle ones"™

Epic Rites Press
240-222 Baseline Road
Suite #206
Sherwood Park, Alberta
Canada T8H 1S8

Check out my blog here.