This is LA writer RD Armstrong’s latest book of poetry in which he collects a whopping 176 poems, including Hospital Sequence, which consists of 15 poems about his two-week 2013 stay in Memorial Hospital for foot surgery. The poems are arranged alphabetically and are typically free verse, first person and autobiographical in detail. The writing is clear and highly personal and focuses largely on the poet’s relationship with women, his ongoing assessment of himself as a man, poet and editor. In this eclectic mix you will also find a few fine portrait poems and Armstrong’s quirky ruminations on politics, jazz musicians, cars, old age and death.
In 2007 RD Armstrong published through his Lummox Press a two-volume collection of his poetry written between 1993-2007 entitled Fire and Rain, 1 & 2. Although he had released more than a dozen chapbooks previously, these represented his first full-length work. After reading through the 700 hundred or so poems he had written up to that time, Armstrong selected and published 300 of his personal favourites in the two collections.
In the Foreword to Orphaned Words RD Armstrong candidly explains the genesis of his latest book:
“Now I have put together most of the other poems into this new volume. They represent the ‘dirty laundry’, the poems that were ignored by all the previous titles, in short, ‘the forgotten poems’. I put this volume together because I learned a valuable lesson from one of the other titles that I put out back around 2011… and that was this, you never know what the reader will latch onto, be it your best or your worst! I realized that I had a lot of poems that I had denied to the general readership because I thought them sub-par. But really, who am I to judge?”
In a recent extended interview with RD Armstrong, which appears at the end of this review, he elaborates further on this “valuable lesson”:
“When I published E/OR in 2010, I tried to paint a picture of the life that led me into the clutches of the medical folks. So I included a number of intentionally bad poems, written when I was drunk, to show my mindset. Unfortunately, I discovered that young adults were particularly enamoured to that ‘crap’.
“After the shock of this wore off, I took a long look at what I was trying to do. I realized that once I published the poems I had no control over how people were going to react… this is especially true of my latest book Orphaned Words, which has been referred to as my greatest work.”
In this review, I will focus on three of the most common themes explored by RD Armstrong in Orphaned Words, which obviously, are intricately linked: his perceptions of himself, his relationship to women and his life as a writer and editor.
RD ARMSTRONG- The Man
Through a series of rich, inter-locking auto-biographical narratives and anecdotes, the reader is offered glimpses of RD, and in loose pieces, gradually reconstructs Armstrong to better understand the man and his world. In these poems he expresses his personal doubts, fears, insecurities, weaknesses and limitations- ripping bare the essence of the man. Yet also revealed amongst the debris of his struggles and personal failures, is the defiant, hard-nosed, poet-warrior who exults in his survival and achievements. As he says succinctly in the interview below, “I’ve lived like a beaten dog, but unlike a beaten dog I have refused to be broken!”
In “After the Reading 3”, RD stamps his reputation as an outsider. In the poem the speaker, presumably Armstrong, attends a function and realises that he is unlike the other poets of local fame who “espouse the pleasures of love and family life”. He is different. He stoically appreciates the joy that derives from family life but that is in the past. He now totally embraces his solitariness:
Not everyone is so blessed
There was a time
When I knew these blessings
But that time is all but forgotten
Now I’m grateful for the chance to
Warm my hands at the fire
Even if it isn’t in my true home
Or with my true family
One learns to adapt
If one wants to survive
In the powerful poem “Buffoon At Large”, he feels: “Trapped in a world that/ I neither understand nor/ Belong to.” In the false light of reality TV shows, the cult of celebrity, the mounting war dead and how he has let slip the standard American dream of “House/ Family/ New car”, he embraces the “solitary groove” and the hard-fought wisdom of having survived all the shit so far flung at him:
I only have my non-standard existence
My solitary groove
My brief moments of connectivity
From my perch
In the gallery of buffoons
This disconnection with mainstream society is furthered in “Invisible on Aisle 5” when at a market he senses, Holden Caulfield like, he is disappearing. Similarly, in the poem “Building Blocks” the speaker sees the “stupidity” of his working life as “the barrier of atoms/ that separates me from/ desire/ and a world I/ pretend to understand/ but do not.”
Some of the other more interesting RD self-portrait poems include, “Portrait”, “Tough”, “Life On The Street”, “The Pin Cushion”, “Ivy II”, “The Beast” and “On the Margin”. Each poem offers a different perspective on the poet- thereby furthering our understanding of the complexities and inner subtleties of the man.
Armstrong never holds back. He tells us everything: the “hot poker” pain he suffers in his battle with diabetes, how his dark side often prowls the “flophouse” of his memory and how he has lived on the edge, “A few steps from insanity/ A few more steps from a cardboard box under a bridge”.
“BIRTH OF AN ASSHOLE” is an important poem because in it Armstrong writes about his “wasted years” and describes the epiphany which helped him to conquer his alcoholism for at least twenty years and to get his fledgling poetry career kick-started:
BIRTH OF AN ASSHOLE
It took me a long time to realize
But when I finally got
it was so obvious
that I didn’t know whether to cry or
I chose to laugh
I laughed so hard
I laughed so hard I split the seat
out of my pants
I laughed some more
I laughed at all the years
I wasted being wasted
trying to conceal
All the years of guilt
Spent in the closet
All the confusion
Moments of illumination
quickly and hurriedly
All the wasted drunks
trying to be clever
All the morning afters spent
All the time backtracking
All those years bunching up to form the mother of all wedgies
in the ultimate cosmic plumbers crack
The light of inspiration illuminates best
when you raid the ice-box of your soul at 3 AM
looking to snack on some philosophical morsels
Or you’re merely talking on the phone
and the standard line of bullshit
takes on a sudden unexpected turn.
(all poems posted in this review are with the artist's permission)
(all poems posted in this review are with the artist's permission)
RD Armstrong- The Lover
Armstrong writes with great emotional intensity about women- the lust, the physical longing, the betrayal and the extended periods of loneliness. His observations are simple, but never straight forward because of the complexity of the relationships he poetises and the emotional baggage he brings with him, including feelings of guilt, inadequacy and remorse. The language is nuanced and layered, often conversational in tone and occasionally sexually explicit.
Armstrong explores the difficulty in getting to know and becoming close to another person. In the collection’s opening poem, “3 Bucks” the speaker, admits that it is difficult understanding another person, let alone yourself, “I’m often misunderstood by women/ My friendliness is mistaken for something/ more and there is never an easy explanation/ because they think they know/ but they don’t”/ How could they, how/ could anyone? //Hell, I don’t even know.”
Similarly, in “Burning Man” he disappointingly writes that “women just want to confide in me/ no, they NEED to confide in me/ to tell me all the juicy tid-bits.” Yet as they dance around him “eyes flashing with passion”, he concludes the poem by suggesting he could do with more action: “But perhaps,/ someday I will stop listening/ to their stories/ and BECOME the story myself/ and their tongues can wag about me!”
This yearning for love juxtaposed with the bleak lonely, horny reality of the present is a common motif in Armstrong’s poetry. In “A Stranger Is Waiting” he twists the balls of the notion that there is a soul-mate out there waiting for you:
A Stranger Is Waiting
It’s said that
The perfect mate is out
There waiting to be found
But what if you’re already
Missed them or worse
What if you’ve already
Blown it with that
Person; what if you zigged
When you should have zagged or
Turned the wrong corner and
Someone else is bumping into
Your “life-mate” as this is
What about that?
Armstrong rarely explicitly expresses love but is able to unearth evocative gems of “connectedness” from his past. Best amongst these include “Number 7”, “Hiking the Rogue River Trail- 1972” with his “first love”, “Leaf Turning”, an extended metaphoric poem, and to a lesser extent ,“Forks in a jar”, a poem about a long lost love triggered by the poet after placing some utensils in a glass jar.
Rather than sentimentalising about love, Armstrong is more adept at explaining his “crazy desire” to get rooted. In “8:45, Tuesday a.m.” while driving on the ten-east, he concludes the poem: “and my cock, still aroused, longing to return/ to the warmth of your bed,/ to penetrate you/ like a blade being driven home.” In the second person poem “Missing You” addressed to a lover he crassly tells her, “I find myself missing/ you on a biological level.”
In “Rain coming down” Armstrong universalises this sense of longing and sexual desire in a highly memorable poem about a haunting loneliness for a woman he has never and probably will never meet:
Rain coming down
And I’m thinking
But it’s a universal you
A you that incorporates
All the actual you’s
That I have known
And the idealized you’s
Because I am here
And I am here
In my aloneness
I think there is
Waiting out there
Looking for me
The rain coming
Looking for a
Armstrong has experienced the many highs & lows and is obviously no slouch when it comes to writing about failed relationships. “Cold Fingers”, “Ignorance”, “In the Shadow of the Jagged Moon”, and in particular, “I Hate” are testy poems in which he rails against rejection in varying creative modes. He concludes “I Hate” with the rant:
I’m sorry to
Hear that what
No big deal
Just the swapping
Like I’m, dead
Or nothing of
Just a stain
RD Armstrong says openly of women in the interview which follows, “All my relationships end in failure. I’m essentially a loner. I know a lot of people, thanks to the internet; but I have very few friends.” In the short poem “I Saw Yojimbo Today”, the speaker is determined to maintain his dignity after being rejected by a lover. He uses a striking cinematic image to highlight his will to continue, alone, “like the/ dirty samurai, one/ must square one’s/ shoulders and walk/ off frame, alone”.
The seedy “Sitting in my bed”, one of most memorable poems in the collection, offers another sad but incredulous take on relationships. In his “darkened sanctuary” the speaker sits on his bed masturbating “waiting for the release/ waiting to drool like an idiot/ and spit its lovin’ spoonful/ onto dispassionate sheets”. After he ejaculates, he realises that his only friend is his damaged self: “damaged goods/ my only companion/ my always-true-love/ coming to no good/ the day beginning and me/ already spent and climbing/ out of my shallow grave/ more time to face/ the sunrise like Lorca faced the firing squad with/ Sad eyes and a sardonic grin”.
RD Armstrong- The Writer/ Editor
In Orphaned Words, RD Armstrong also extensively reflects on his life as a writer, editor and publisher in more than a couple of dozen poems in the collection.
He covers a wide range of topics related to his own writing of poetry. In “Immortal Lines” he explores the difficulty of creating art, in “I thought I was” the perennial problem of writer’s block and in the poem “Stop” the chilling sense of imminent failure: “I’m left with/ a vague feeling of disgust/ of self-hatred,/ of fear/ that it has finally happened and/ I can’t make the words/ do cartwheels anymore.” And in “The Watcher” Armstrong flogs himself mercilessly for writing safe shit: “Turning ideas over in my head like jagged rocks/… until they are smooth/ and featureless and most of all/ safe”.
In “Ambush” Armstrong contemplates more widely what the year might bring. He concludes, similar to Bukowski- one of his heroes, that writing is a form of insanity: “Mostly I hope that/ I will release the ideas/ that are presently/ banging around inside/ my head like ricocheting/ bullets with my sanity/ caught in the cross-fire.” More sophisticated is the meta-poem “A Silver Line” in which the speaker meditates on the act of and dissolution of an artistic vision as symbolised by “a chalk streak” within his embryonic imagination.
More humorously, in “Dogmah” he likens writing to “squeezing out” a “turd” or in “beat poet” as a wank. Waiting outside Sam’s Book City in “Spell Breaker” he ironically quips to Doc Moss: “That’s why I’m into poetry…for the chicks!” They both laugh knowing “you get more poetry/ from women, than you get women/ from poetry.”
Further to this notion, as editor, Armstrong mockingly says in “Dilemma” that “I sleep with poets”, more accurately, he sleeps with their “sheets/ of poems that litter my/ apartment.” His dilemma is that the poets he publishes are his “children” and he feels responsible for them but he needs to “sneak time” to create his own work. In “My Head is a Soggy Sponge Full of Other People’s Dreams” he regrettably laments, “I’m typing some of the best poetry I’ve done in years/ Unfortunately, 75% of it is someone else’s”. Later in the poem the speaker says matter-of-factly, “ … the buckets of slop keep coming/ and I can’t remember/ how to/ reverse/ the spell”.
RD Armstrong also offers some advice to his readers. In “The Quiet Revolution” he states: “remember that poetry is the/ Miracle of small things made large”. More simpler is the meta-poem “A POEM/SHOVEL” in which he suggests a poem can be “everything and nothing”, that is, whatever you want it to be:
A poem does not
have to be a shovel
stick of dynamite
fist closing around your throat
or even the unblinking eye of death
A poem can be rude
just by stating the obvious
A poem can be a table
your loving eyes
your hateful eyes
a gaping mouth
a tight-lipped mouth
A poem is everything
forever & never.
RD Armstrong- on Politics & Death
The collection also includes moving tributes “On The Death Of Mike Adams” and “Requiem For A Jazz Drummer” for Mike Indovina. Also of interest are about five poems, such as “Something that My Dream Mother said”, which reveal aspects of RD’s childhood. Armstrong is essentially an apolitical poet, but he also includes a dozen or so poems which are critical of American domestic and foreign policy, the best of which is “Dream”. Perhaps more appealing to me are Armstrong’s fascination with growing old and his yearning for death. Check out “Stone”, “Reality Check” and “The Siren’s call”.
The poems in this collection are simply written but are at first difficult to entangle because of their nuanced complexities. Although written over a period of fifteen years, RD’s voice is remarkably consistent. These are mature, easy to read poems, worthy of multiple close readings. Many of the poems should evoke in the reader similar experiences in their own repertoire of memories. As RD Armstrong writes in his Foreword to Orphaned Words: “I hope that you, the reader, will find some of this poetry of value, either as entertainment or perhaps, as an unexpected illumination that clarifies some aspect of your life, as well. If that’s the case, then I’ve done my job.”
Buy the collection here: https://www.lummoxpress.com/lc/category/2018/orphaned-words/
You began writing in 1968 but didn’t ramp it up until about 1993. Why did you start to take your writing more seriously?
RD: My early work was mostly crap, you know... confessional high-school whiny junk. It developed and matured as I developed and matured. I like to think that had I gone to college, I might have developed faster. But since I didn't, my growth was slow.
So between 1968 and 1984 I wrote sparingly but I continued to keep a journal (something I began doing in '68 when I was a junior in H.S.) – think of it as a catalog of my thoughts, ideas, drawings, feelings and some topical reactions to the Vietnam war, assassinations.... things that affected me peripherally. It was this journaling that led to my nearly ten year hiatus from creative-writing, from 1984 to 1993.
What are the background events which led you to set up Lummox Press in 1995?
Well, actually, I think it was in '94 that I co-published the first book that bore the name Lummox Press (along with Vinegar Hill Books). We put together the collection of writings by 4 or 5 writers, myself included, called “Last Call: A Legacy of Madness” dedicated to the memory of Charles Bukowski (who had died in March of '94). Then in '95, I worked for this poetry festival in Long Beach, “When Words Collide”. It was ambitious, but poorly managed and in the end I was paid only a fraction of what I was promised. It was a very bitter lesson. But out of that bitterness came the Lummox Journal, a monthly Lit-Arts digest that I put out from the end of 1995 to the end of 2006.
As to the actual events/experiences that led up to this, I had discovered a poetry scene in San Pedro where I had just moved to in '92.... I had no idea that such a thing existed! The local coffeehouse, Sacred Grounds, was at the center of it all. It was a place to hang out with friends, to study or just read (yes there was still reading back then some 27 years ago). At night you could hear some poetry or music. I became a regular and began to participate in the nightly events (I'd been a troubadour of sorts, working the coffeehouse circuit, doing my tribute to Tom Waits, which came out of my brief stint with a couple of bands that I'd put together). We weren't very good, which was odd since most of the players were talented; talented musicians.... just not talented (mature) people. Hence my solo gigs.
I sort of fell into poetry because of my musical attempts. I had experimented with soundscapes to play under poetry, but I never had the money to buy the proper equipment, so everything I tried to do was handicapped by those limitations. The poetry I was writing was good (I thought), so I started printing up these various “tracts” – I did a pamphlet which I placed in various laundromats and bookstores around San Pedro, wherever there were community bulletin boards.
I started going to poetry open mics and eventually there was enough of a demand to put my favorite poems into a little hand-bound collection. I DIY'd 2 of these (which I wish I still had copies of). One was called “Unkissed by the Angels” and the other was “...And Love Is Dancing Just Out of Reach”. I can't remember which came first. They sold out pretty quickly. The seed of profitability was planted, tho at this point I wasn't relying on book-sales to make it through each month. That would come later.
Your writing is largely auto-biographical. Why would readers be interested in entering your world?
When I first started writing, I was mainly focused on writing about my feelings (what you might call confessional poetry). I viewed poetry as a means to work on myself, as a kind of therapy. I wasn't too keen on it, it always seemed to be kind of whiny. But after my ten year hiatus, my poetry 'voice' had matured (just as I had matured). It was still introspective, but it was more inclusive of the world around me; the forces that shape our lives (whether we like it or not), the yin and yang of daily existence.
My newest book, “Orphaned Words”, has found an audience that ranges from 15 to 90. That's pretty remarkable when you think about it. You might say that there's something for everyone. Perhaps, it's because I've led an unusual life, making my own way and living by my own code. I don't really know why anyone would be interested, except I write about what I know. And apparently, I'm pretty good at it.
If a reader is new to your work, where do you recommend they start with first?
My latest book.
Turning to Orphaned Words, in your Foreword you mention that the poems did not make it into your first two volume collection Fire and Rain 1 &2 because you considered them “dirty laundry”, as being “sub-par”. What specific “valuable lesson” did you learn around 2011 which enabled you to let go and to allow your readers to make up their own minds about your work?
When I published E/OR (my collection about my experiences in the world of medicine) in 2010, I tried to paint a picture of the life that had led me into the clutches of the medical folks. So I included a number of intentionally bad poems, written when I was drunk, to show my mindset. Unfortunately I discovered that young adults were particularly enamored to that “crap” (perhaps they identified with them because these poems approached the subject matter in a simple way.... in other words they could relate to them).
After the shock of this wore off, I took a long look at what I was trying to do (I put out a revised version of this book, without those dumb poems, for starters). I realized that once I published the poems I had no control over how people were going to react.... this is especially true of my latest book, Orphaned Words, which has been referred to my greatest work!
Through Lummox Press you publish what you want. Regarding your own writing, how do you go about selecting material for publication? Do you sometimes/often ask others to read your rough drafts or do you essentially edit and vet what personally moves you?
Many years ago, I was advised to put the best poems I could into whatever publication I was doing at the time. Which is what I thought I was doing (of course “the best” is completely subjective), but as it turns out, I am not a very good judge of what is my best. Basically, I've been refining my “best” over the past 25 years (much like Walt Whitman, who wrote a slender volume called “Leaves of Grass” which he self-published. Over the years, as he kept adding to it, revising as he went along, “Leaves of Grass” got thicker and thicker. But unlike old Walt, my refining process has lead to more volumes....but one day I'd like to put everything into one BIG volume, just for the fun of it).
Since I am self-taught, I really didn't know about asking someone else to edit my work. Partly I think this was born out of a desire to get the thing done and out into the world; so it was efficient to just do it myself. But also I was highly suspicious of the motives of an 'editor'. It's the old saw: those who can, do; those who can't, teach. Or in this case... those who can't, edit. I've worked very hard to craft my identity as a poet, integrating with who I am as a man. I really don't like it when someone tries to “coat-tail” on my success or tries to make me change to fit their version of events. I've been called an “Outlaw” poet by Todd Moore which, on the face of it seems cool, but in reality doesn't fit how I see myself....because I'm more outlaw than even Todd could imagine. I'm still looking for a pat answer that I can use when asked “What kind of poet are you?”
Your relationships with women feature frequently in your poems. You write about the lust, the longing, the betrayal, the periods of loneliness. Can you sum up why many of your promising relationships end in failure?
All my relationships end in failure, George. I'm essentially a loner. I know a lot of people, thanks to the internet, I have friends all over the place and around the world; but I have very few friends.
The longest poem in the collection is the five page “The Fear of the Pen”in which you elaborate on an early philosophy of your writing. You fancied you were “an authority on the PROCESS” but later saw yourself as “SCUM” and in your rejection of the JOURNAL, you struggled in your knowledge of “self-betrayal.” Can you elaborate on this period of your life, in particular on your view of literature and the creative process? How has your view of the writing process changed since this time?
Actually there are several poems in Orphaned Words that are from that pamphlet I mentioned earlier, Fear of the Pen is the longest. But as to my process....as I mentioned earlier, writing in a journal/diary was always associated with therapy. Even writing poems was therapeutic, or so I believed. But as I descended into the hell of my own making, I lost sight of the therapeutic aspect....perhaps I was blinded by my drunkenness. At this stage of life, it's hard to remember what I was thinking, it was almost 40 years ago!
Whatever the reasons, I have found that it's always hard to take a long, hard, look at my own behavior....in the past the emphasis has always been a rather harsh and punitive one. But more recently, my exploration of my past has been tempered with a kindness that hasn't always been easy to reckon with. When you've suffered with a life-long existential angst, it's hard to let anyone in, even if for a hand on the shoulder or a gentle caress on one's cheek (so used to punishment; mental or physical).
I've lived like a beaten dog, but unlike a beaten dog I have refused to be broken!
Your poetry is highly personal but occasionally you dabble in political commentary, for instance, on America’s involvement in war, the menace of a nuclear holocaust, George W. Bush’s “stolen election” and your grave fears for Democracy. How have you viewed Trump’s Presidency over the last two years and is there hope for America yet?
Things are looking pretty grim these days for America. Trump seems to want to turn our country into a gigantic corporation: America, Inc. But, the thing is, this country is so big (population 325.7 million) that what goes on at the top layer hardly reaches down to my level, the level of the bottom feeders, the level of SCUM. I have written two poems that speak to my fears of our crumbling democracy: “The Lady Waits” and “RoadKill”. The latter is an epic (10,100 words long) that addresses 9/11 in the middle, but that also deals with a road trip and the day-to-day minutia of traveling from point A to point B. Todd Moore called it “An avalanche of words”.
RoadKill was published by 12 Gauge Press, one of the few times I didn't self-publish (but I regretted it because the publisher did a rather shoddy job of the book creation). Later, it was included in “On/Off the Beaten Path” a collection of 3 long poems, mostly about road trips I took in the 90's.
“The Lady Waits” (p.177) can be found in “Orphaned Words”. It is a short poem, maybe 20 lines or so. It speaks to the ideals of liberty vs. the reality of liberty. At the time I wrote it (early 2000's), I had no idea that it would still be germane today and so topical!
In the poem Lucid Thoughts #2 you posit the view that it seems sometimes that there are “unseen hands constantly adjusting things”. What’s your view of fate/ destiny? Do you think there is a god?
Yes, I believe in god, but it is not some guy with a beard sitting in the clouds....no, my god is the electromagnetic glue that holds the universe together! As to fate/destiny....these are nice words that allow us to keep advancing each day. I don't really subscribe to the standard line of B.S. that seems to permeate our culture; the line being that if you do what the law requires, mind your P's and Q's an keep your nose clean, you'll go to a better place after you're dead. This seems silly to me.
Let's face it, George, this modern life, as frightening and unpredictable as it is (seems the 'piper' is demanding his due – after years of swallowing the crap of “civilization” – the third world wants in on the action), this life demands our presence to be as present as we can be! If one truly lives in each moment, there is no destiny, no fate; no past or future, there's just now. I'm sorry to go all Zen on you, but that's the ideal. But in the real, that's where we are tested.
I'm working on a poem that starts with the line: “it's been a week of yesterdays.” Basically, it's a poem about the crippling effects of doubt and denial. The yesterdays are the things I meant to do today, but have ended up being moved down the list of yesterdays. I'm not sure if this is making sense (I better check my blood sugar).
As you get older RD, you seem to focus more on aging and on thoughts on death with an increasing affection. Do you fear it or see it in a different light these days?
I was unaware of that. But the poem, “Reality Check” speaks to these issues.... “there is a point/ where the concept of/ old/ is surpassed by/ the reality of/ old/ when you notice that/ things you vaguely/ worried about yesterday/ are no longer tomorrow's/ burdens but have become/ today's realities” and this poem was written at least ten years before my involvement with the medical folks.
As to fearing it....well isn't death inevitable? Sometimes, it's also surprising. I used to think that I would be dead by the age of 60. I got some bad intel, and when it looked like that wasn't true (the fact that I'll be 68 by the time you publish this, pretty much refutes that fear), I had to make some adjustments. There's an old Buddhist saying that goes something like this: “live each day as if it is your last.” I'm trying...
RD, you include some fine portrait poems in Orphan Words including “On the Death Of Mike Adams”and “Requiem For A Jazz Drummer”. Why haven’t you included more one-off poems about the many interesting people you have met?
Because many of the people I have come to know, have become disappointments. Also, when death takes someone like Mike Adams (too soon, if you ask me), if it affects you in a profound way, you almost have to write about it! You can't really memorialize the living. But I have written poems about people that I've known that 'touched' me in some way (usually women I've known).
You have written about your medical care in a pauper’s hospital in LA in your book E/OR: Living Amongst the Mangled (Lummox Press, 2010) and more recently in Orphaned Words, in Hospital Sequencewhich consists of sixteen poems about your 2013 two week stay at Memorial Hospital. Since being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2008 you have received close to a million dollars in medical expenses. What is your experience of health care in America?
I dunno, George, that's probably a whole other volume of E/OR.... Well, thus far it's been quite a challenge, both mentally and physically. In some ways, I think the poor, working poor, itinerant and lowest class (in a sense we are “untouchables”, to use the Hindu caste system) take what we can get, at least I have. One gets about the same level of care in a teaching hospital as one does at say, Cedars Sinai. My two stays in hospital have both been teaching hospitals. The doctors for the most part are idiots, the nurses are the ones who get the work done and one must be strong to go it alone (as I did). From what I've seen of medicine as it is portrayed in the Scandinavian crime shows that I watch, socialized medicine seems to be the most humane. Of course, I don't live in Sweden or Norway, so I don't really know what's what. But, I guess I've been blessed. I haven't paid more than a thousand dollars for the million or so in procedures.
You mention Bukowski with reverence sometimes in your work. Do you have other personal heroes in the literary world or elsewhere? Can you identify anyone up and coming?
Well, I like early Ferlinghetti, Frost and Sandburg. I like Gerry Locklin's “art” poems (there's a word that describes these poems but it's escaping me... ekphrasic?). I like Bill Gainer's more personal poems, but he's as old as fuck. There are a lot of poets who have touched me with their poems, far too many to mention here (just look at any copy of the LUMMOX Anthology.... all those poems touched me). As for who's coming up, the older I get, the older the poets seem to get; but there are a few, like Jeannine Pitas. I nominated her for a Pushcart this year.
To be honest, I wish I could tap into the younger generation (like my 15 year old fan, who shows signs of promise). Problem is, I don't know how to make that happen.... most of the young people around me are, well to be blunt, idiots. Perhaps I need to conduct some workshops... I just don't know.
As an editor I have to ask you about what you are looking for when a manuscript finds it way to you. What is going through your mind?
The simple answer? If I read three or four poems out of the manuscript that make me think AHA! Or if I get goosebumps, that usually does the trick. Then the difficulty becomes when I can publish it and, more importantly, will the author promote/sell the book or not. Lately I've been thinking that I can't keep carrying poets who don't make enough sales to cover my cost. So, it looks like I'll be cutting back on the poets I publish and rely on the LUMMOX Anthology and contest to generate the capital I need to live my spartan lifestyle (roughly 50%).
Of course, I will continue to publish books that I feel need to be published, even tho they aren't viable in terms of cash return (I'll just be publishing less of them). The Anthology is going to shrink a bit, but it and the Angela C. Mankiewicz Poetry Prize currently generate almost 5 months of income. I'd be stupid to turn away from that.... however, my health may influence that decision. Time will tell.
Does anything positively surprise or inspire you these days?
This is an easy question.... I actually feel at home most of the time. I find myself savoring the moments as they/I drift thru (in that respect I've become much more introspective; I'd like to think that I'm pretty clear on where my private life ends and my public life begins), but my literary life is fluid, moving between the public and private, with no fixed point in either to anchor my thoughts to.
What’s next for you RD?
International fame and fortune? Naw, I'm joking (tho it would be nice). I figure I've got another decade left. There's so much else I'd like to do: videos; songs I've written that I'd like to record; lose another 50 pounds; and who knows, maybe I'll fall in love with that one-in-a-million woman and she'll love me back. Stranger things have happened...
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.