recent posts

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Book Review/ Interview: Catfish McDaris. 27 Hammerheads Circling Ever Closer. Pski's Porch, 2018 (318 pages)

This is an amazing, mind-blowing anthology of Catfish McDaris’s new, old and collected writing over an unspecified number of years. It includes more than a hundred poems, eleven pieces of flash fiction and three extended short stories “Naked Serial Killers in Volkswagens”, “Cocaine Nipples” and “The Painter”- which comprise roughly half the book.

The poetry is characteristically free verse and narrative in form. The poems usually sit comfortably on one page and most are about twenty lines in length. The poetry is extremely varied in subject matter and full of surprizes for the adventurous small press reader. You never know what to expect from one page to the next to the page after that. A prose poem sex romp, and poems about Billy the Kid, Van Gogh and Hendrix appear within a few pages of the book’s opening. The poems move from first to third person, from anecdotal social realism to the surreal or the supernatural or the absurd. The poems often feature a man known as ‘the Spaniard’ and his exploits are told with good humour, wit and exuberance. McDaris’s language is full of inventive word play and explicit sexual and drug references. 

The poem “Blue Desperado” on page 2 provides us with an early morsel of what to expect:

Blue Desperado

Apacho Comancho could hear a fly
fart in a hurricane, when he strutted
down the avenue all the vaginas
palpitated pulsated and pounded

Apacho was the motherfucking cats
meow, Mr. Love ‘em and Leave ‘em
he left all the ladies a hot mess under
duress, dancing into the garden of

Earthly delight with lightning bugs
tangoing in the air and swimming in
the dark oceans of the night, panthers
wrapped around him in legs and torso

Comancho bought a white stallion, so
white it was blue, he rode west and
crossed rivers of blood, his heart was
poisoned, his horse and he became one.

(all work posted with the permission of the writer)

Some of the more memorable poems include “No Longer Here”, “Neptune”, “A Horseshoe and 7 Flies and A Bowl of Tiger Soup”,  “How to be a Small Press Success”, “A Gringo Taco”, “The Kangaroo Blues”, “Feeling  Bit Queered”, “Flashing Back”, “Oh Woof”, “Help Me Please, God”, “The Weasel and the Beaver”, “Make Your Move”, Guaymas”, “Van Gogh’s Spinach” and “Birdman from Albuquerque”.

This book is interestingly “dedicated to all jailbirds, shoeshine boys, bricklayers, hod carriers, wig slingers, war veterans, skeezers, the Red Hot Chile Peppers, plumbers without the crack, dog walkers, cat lovers, potters, painters, postal workers, and the bones of Charles Bukowski.”

The title poem is a tight, inventive piece with a catchy name. In the interview with Catfish McDaris which follows this review, he remarks about the poem, “I chose the title first. I just read it, I couldn’t remember it. That’s a fucking killer shape shifting poem, I love it. I’m always writing lines, I never know where they’ll go.”

27 Hammerheads Circling Ever Closer

Six mailboxes of rejects, a geisha
with crotch-less panties in a blue
silk stork robe, Confucius love,
the fear of God and love of sin

Don Quixote eating peyote, while
wolves, grizzlies, Tasmanian devils,
and cat-sized mosquitoes try to
drain your blood in murderous rage

She never knew I was a legerdemain
Charlatan holding hands with magic,
27 hammerheads circling ever closer.

The front cover is illustrated by the Swedish artist Janne Karlsson. In it, a McDaris look-alike smokes a cigarette and strides a hammerhead shark. He spills a cup of coffee as he sinks a large kitchen knife into the beast’s snout.  The back cover consists of two drawings by LaWanda Walters.

The best of the book’s eleven pieces of flash fiction tend to focus on McDaris’s experiences as an artilleryman in the U.S. Army in the early 1970s, in boot camp and later in West Germany after Nixon stopped sending troops to Vietnam. The stories “Dutch”, and most important of all, “Little Vietnam, Tigerland Fort Polk, Louisiana” are fascinating and candid accounts of army life. 

Also memorable is the flash fiction which morphs from realism to a more mystical realm. “The Beautiful Monster” and “Spaniard’s Odyssey” evoke journeys where anything is possible. Consider this last paragraph from “Spaniard’s Odyssey”:

“The maiden led Spaniard up a ladder and down another ladder into a round kiva. They became one, they were contented like timber rattlesnakes sunning themselves on a granite mountain ledge. They could hear grass and corn growing, rivers singing, the ghosts of the ancient ones laughing and chanting. Kokopelli’s flute whispered and echoed, a feather dancing in the air. When Spaniard awoke, his lady had vanished. He could hear a bear growling above the kiva. Instantaneously, Spaniard became a butterfly, he flew into the bear’s mouth. Before the bear could swallow him, he flew away.”

Despite the crafty imagination and ongoing experimentation in McDaris’s poetry and flash fiction, what sets this book aflame and distinguishes it from the typical tread mill of egotistical small press mediocrity, is the daring and downright crazy storylines in his extended fiction. The three extended short stories in the book “The Painter” (51 pages), “Cocaine Nipples” (26 pages) and “Naked Serial Killers in Volkswagens” (64 pages) are full-on original and amongst the maddest shit I have had the pleasure to read for years.

The most accessible of the three is “The Painter”, a road journey about an attractive male artist called Nicky Moon whose specialty is capturing women in his art in the throes of orgasm. This story unfolds in nine parts and is essentially a fuck feast told in the form of a tall story. It follows Nicky’s pursuit of art and pussy and reaches a surprising climax after he pops some peyote buttons and straddles the enchanting and mysterious Sky. 

The story “Cocaine Nipples” is far more experimental, particularly in its bizarre evolving narrative and use of open-ended structure. The story is a loosely connected series of vignettes which progress preposterously to an unimaginable conclusion- even for the writer. Words, ideas, plot lines slip, bend, contort in impossible angles. A late-blooming hunchbacked butterfly eventually emerges but you cannot recall how the story actually arrived there. 

How do you explain the story without spoilers? Let me just say that the plot includes a mass-murdering possessed mink stole, an artist who paints people eating finger licking chicken thighs and drumsticks, a bloke who sells squirrels to a tiger owner and a haemorrhoid patient who spack-fills his asshole with crunchy peanut butter and non-toxic glue to pay back a group of proctologists from hell.

The highlight of this book is certainly the short story “Naked Serial Killers in Volkswagens” which I recommend you begin this book with.  The unlikely title derives from the 8 chapter titles of the story which are named after American mass murderers- Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wuornos, Gary Leon Ridgway, Jeffrey Dahmer, Velma Barfield, Ted Bundy and David Berkowitz. The baddies usually enter the story incidentally in the last paragraph or two of the chapter and don’t really affect the direction of the plot. 

The short story begins with Roxi and El Bagre eating spaghetti and sausages in Little Italy but after an old hippie boards their train, Bag drinks Southern Comfort and drops capsules of mescaline with the bloke, and the story, like Bag, enters a black vortex in which two ancient First Nations tribes are pitted againgst each other to fight to the death. The writing is ingenious, totally off-the-cuff and mad to the limit. Sometimes the point of view, storyline or characters disappear within a paragraph and morph into another arc. At one point in Chapter 8 the narrative even bursts into a series of dead-pan jokes. Here’s a lame one”:

“How about the drunk staggering into the Catholic church? He makes it into confessional and the priest says, tell me your sins my son. There is a long silence, the priest repeats himself to no avail. Finally he bangs on the wall and says you must confess. The drunk says, quit banging, there’s no toilet paper in here either.”

27 Hammerheads Circling Ever Closeris a highly inventive, bold collection of poetry, flash fiction and extended short stories by the Milwaukee based American writer Catfish McDaris. The anthology is a rich and diverse body of work and is hugely entertaining. You will find the best stuff in McDaris’s extended fiction. It may be uneven and outrageous but also insanely funny!

 Further Resources 

Marquette University- Special Collections and University Archives- Catfish McDaris, 1993-2013:

13 Questions of Catfish McDaris- Horror, Sleaze, Trash:

Desolation Angeles- David Blaine Interviews Catfish McDaris:


Why didn’t you seriously start writing until your 30s? What were the circumstances that prompted you to finally get it down on the page?

I dropped out of school in the tenth grade. I was already a journeyman bricklayer, so I had a trade. I got my GED High School Diploma in Boot Camp, then took classes in German and from the University of Maryland. I wrote long letters to family and friends while I was in the army in Germany; describing Europe and army life. For two and a half years I shot cannons and played war games. I also saw lots of castles and went to Amsterdam often. I raised lots of hell and spent nine months at a nudist colony, when I wasn’t playing soldier. I am autodidactic, I read everything. Classics, French, Russians, English, Americans, and Chinese. I needed to teach myself as much as I could, before putting ink to paper. In Milwaukee I went to poetry readings, I got on stage and felt like a rock star. I discovered the small press, it was still the SASE days, no internet. It was great fun; my wife wouldn’t agree or our daughter. Now I say I’m like an inside dog, I only do it on paper. If somebody paid me enough I’d hit the wood again. I’ve done some radio blog shows from home that were cool, one was with Lady Gaga’s violinist.

In David Blaine’s 2011 interview, you refer in detail to your early life before the post office and your marriage. How has this period helped to initiate and shape your writing?

David Blaine is a good writer, he met Carl Sandburg’s youngest daughter, Helga. The army taught me discipline, which is important to work at the Main Post Office in Milwaukee. Writing and reading provides sanity. Love of a good woman and a baby keeps your head straight and keeps you putting beans and tortillas on the table. As they say now, you got to man up.

Over how many years was the material in 27 Hammerheads written? Has much of this stuff been previously published?
Dr. Marc Pietrzykowski (PhD) is Pski’s Porch, he’s a professor near Buffalo, New York. He plays 5 or 6 instruments, with 5 string bass being his main stay. I sent him Sleeping with the Fish, a year before 27 Hammerheads Circling Ever Closer. Marc said he didn’t publish flash fiction, he preferred poetry or a novella. I told him give it a go. He wrote back, he said cool. We did that mixture of words. Then we did a tribute to Vincent van Gogh called Resurrection of a Sunflower, then we did 27 Hammerheads. Most of these books are new, old, and collected. If someone paid me or I have a contract on my words, I don’t give credit. The small press doesn’t get enough exposure as it is. If I ever hit the big time, I’ll have my agent deal with where, who, and how. I’m too fucking old for that shit anyway.
Titles come to me, I had a 10 poem chaps called: 72 Magpies Fucking Over Buffalo, also: 66 Lines on Your Soul. Something about numbers are a hook.

What editing process was involved in the publication of 27 Hammerheads? Did you simply send Pski’s Porch a shit-load of work and they published the lot or was the process more elongated and refined than that?

Marc and I get on the same page before layout. We are partners, but he’s still the boss. We trust each other and work well together. Mendes Biondo from Northern Italy has joined us since our Van Gogh book. We do Ramingo’s Porch. Our third issue I rounded up all my old Bukowski and Jack Micheline contacts. Your question was the process elongated and refined, reminded me of a guy hard up for a job. He sees an ad that says they are looking for a piss tester, so he goes and applies. When arrives he sees the ad is actually looking for a piss taster.

I note that you adopted the title of the book from the poem “27 Hammerheads Circling Ever Closer.” Can you explain why you chose this title apart from its intriguing name?

I chose the title first. I just read it, I couldn’t remember it. That’s a fucking killer shape shifting poem, I love it. I’m always writing lines, I never know where they’ll go. As soon as I contacted my Swedish maniac genius, Janne. He said Cat I have your cover and LaWanda did my rear cover. Intrigue is the hook.

‘The Spaniard’ features in many of your poems and flash fiction. Is he your alter-ego or simply an imaginary character to unleash your stories?

Years ago, a writer I respected and still do, Todd Moore told me I was writing “brag poetry and fiction” step away from your work, people will dig it more. Spaniard comes from the last town I lived in in New Mexico, Espanola. I used Quick from a childhood hero, Danny Quick. I used Nappy because of my nappy hair. El Bagre in Killers just means catfish in Spanish.

You gave up the booze many years ago but make many other drug references in your work- usually to ganga or peyote. Do you sometimes write under the influence?

14 years now with no ignorant oil. No other drugs except coffee and Xanax. Back in my hippie days, there is nothing I wouldn’t try, except datura stramonium (Jimson weed), after one time with that I almost lost my mind. I took lots of acid, peyote, sotol, mescaline with Huichols in Mexico.  I preferred psilocybin mushrooms from southeast Texas compared to all the psychedelics I experimented with. I loved weed smoking: bongs, blunts, chillums, fat boys, pinners. Lots of hash in Europe. I read the top 4 of 5 most powerful marijuana strains grow in Australia. My street drug days are long over. I do not recommend alcohol or drugs for anyone.

I really dig your novella Naked Serial Killers in Volkswagens. I was wondering if you could provide some background as to how you wrote it and how you eventually pieced it together?

Serial killers are a touchy subject in Milwaukee because of Jeffrey Dahmer. He picked up most of his 21 victims close to where I worked. He worked for Ambrosia Chocolate close to the Milwaukee Post Office. There were lots of gay bars and art galleries in the area. I read poetry with various musicians. I met Dahmer a few times and he bought chapbooks from me. I think he wanted to make a snack of me. The cops caught him finally. They came to my house and wanted to see if I was a cannibal too. They put Jeff in prison, he lasted 8 months before he was shanked. For those 8 months, we got 3 to 5 bomb threats a week, people trying to blow his ass up. I watched the movie, Monster about the woman serial killer and threw in Manson. There is so much evil in this world. It seemed like they all had to be naked and vilified driving VW’s.

You said in a previous interview that you write for fun and to entertain your audience. As you grow older, do you consider that you may have a higher purpose?

I never tried to make big money by writing. It’s still fun for me. I’ve won a few awards and been nominated for tons. I like meeting people from all over the world and with the web it is possible. I’m working on three novels all the time, while taking lots of detours.

You store 25 years of your published material in the Special Archives Collection at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Where would you suggest a future literary biographer to begin the exploration of your published work?

Go on the Marquette site and click on the series boxes, that will tell you about some of the places I’ve been published. They collect all current paper publications and electronic, so this interview will be in the archives. Just Google Catfish McDaris. I try never to search my name, it’s too ego inflating. Once I found a long interview I did with the beatnik, Charles Plymell. Some one had translated it into Esperanto. We didn’t get paid, since it has no money or country.

What on the cards next for you?

I’m still editor at Ramingo’s Porch and contributing odditer for Odd Books in Kolkata, India. I have a couple of broadsides coming soon, one from 48th St. Press and another from Holy & Intoxicated, I’ve made a few other scores. Thanks George, you run a tight ship.

Thanks for dropping by, Cat.

Bio: Catfish McDaris’ most infamous chapbook is Prying with Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski. His best readings were in Paris at the Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore and with Jimmy"the ghost of Hendrix"Spencer in NYC on 42nd St. He’s done over 25 chaps in the last 25 years. He’s been in the New York Quarterly, Slipstream, Pearl, Main St. Rag, Café Review, Chiron Review, Zen Tattoo, Wormwood Review, Great Weather For Media, Silver Birch Press, and Graffiti and been nominated for 15 Pushcarts, Best of Net in 2010, 2013, 2014, 2016, and 2017 he won the Uprising Award in 1999, and won the Flash Fiction Contest judged by the U.S. Poet Laureate in 2009. He was in the Louisiana Review, George Mason Univ. Press, and New Coin from Rhodes Univ. in South Africa. He’s recently been translated into Spanish, French, Polish, Swedish, Arabic, Bengali, Mandarin, Yoruba, Tagalog, and Esperanto. His 25 years of published material is in the Special Archives Collection at Marquette Univ. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Bukowski’s Indian pal Dave Reeve, editor of Zen Tattoo gave Catfish McDaris his name when he spoke of wanting to quit the post office and start a catfish farm. He spent a summer shark fishing in the Sea of Cortez, built adobe houses, tamed wild horses around the Grand Canyon, worked in a zinc smelter in the panhandle of Texas, and painted flag poles in the wind. He ended at the post office in Milwaukee. 

No comments: