Discourses on Disorder: A Q&A with R. W. Watkins


Canadian poet R. W. Watkins began experimenting with the ghazal form in the mid to late 1990s. Subsequently, two of his earliest attempts became the only Canadian content in Agha Shahid Ali’s anthology of English-language ghazals, Ravishing DisUnities, in 2000. In 2003, he published the inaugural issue of Contemporary Ghazals—the world’s first English-language journal dedicated to the titular form of Middle Eastern and Indian poetry. An ‘Introductory Collection’ of poems from the first three issues of this groundbreaking publication was recently made available on Amazon.com. As well, Watkins released his first foray into novel-writing, The Rites of Summer, in January of this year. To mark the occasion, the following compilation of conversations and interview excerpts has been assembled. Watkins discusses the ghazal, alternative publishing, contemporary politics and other contentious topics with American webzine editor Michele McDannold; underground poet Pat Collins; Scottish poet/editor L. J. McDowall; his publishing assistant and romantic partner, Jacqueline Jones; and experimental novelist Bill Ectric. The earliest of these discourses dates from the fall of 2007.


Michele McDannold: What do you think is the single most troubling aspect in the writing world today?

I wouldn’t be able to narrow it down to merely one. As I see it, there are at least three or four very troubling aspects of equal detriment. Not the least of which is television’s abandoning of us. The middle medium—as I like to call it—started to give up on us poets—and writers in general—about two decades ago. As I was telling poet Bob Grumman [2 February 1941 – 2 April 2015] about a year ago, television still provides a little airtime for established authors roughly 60 or older, and will probably do so until those—[Norman] Mailer, [Margaret] Atwood, [Gore] Vidal, [Robert] Bly, etc.—are all dead and gone. [Note: Norman Mailer died just weeks after this interview, in November of 2007, and Gore Vidal passed away in the summer of 2012.] Then all the broadcasters will let out a collective “Wheewww! I’m glad that’s over!” and focus on even more serious dumbing-down and low culture instillation. They’ve been working on this for years, actually. Every time one hears informal banter between anchors during a supposedly formal news broadcast, or people referred to as ‘guys’ and ‘kids’ in the relating of a particular story, that’s this deculturalisation process in its most tangible and extreme strand of devolution. The anchors will eventually be dressing like Little Leaguers and hopscotch girls, and covering stories like ‘President What’s-His-Name’s Gnarly Trainers’, ‘Boogers and You’, ‘Dakota Gets Her First Thong’ and what-have-you. You’ll be seeing that down in the States in just a few years—if it’s not manifesting itself already. We’ll be seeing it here in Canada a little bit after that—first on CTV and Global, then the CBC. If there’s an electronic medium that’s going to help promote us, it will be the Internet aspect of the computer—not television. And the more coverage poets and other writers get online, the less airtime television will feel compelled to offer us—almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy that insures and perpetuates future ignorance.
           
Another very troubling aspect—especially from my Canadian perspective—would have to be the compromising of artistic output due to government funding. Here in Canada, even if one doesn't receive a grant from a provincial arts council or the almighty federal Canada Council for the Arts, he or she will still have to go through the government filter if they decide to send their manuscript out to a midsize or even large publishing house, due to the fact that the majority of these fuckers are regularly subsidised by both levels of government—often obscenely so, or so I’ve heard. Whatever the case, as I’ve said time and time again, the end result is books of poetry and fiction that resemble nothing as much as tourist brochures. “O blazing sacred wheatfields of Saskatchewan / You bow in praise of our late, great Prime Minister Trudeau and his virile loins / Then lean eastward / As if longing to grope the rugged shores of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland...”—you know, kitschy, geographically patriotic shit like that.
           
Of course, the flipside to this artless phenomenon is equally detrimental to literature today—namely, the under-40 or -45 crowd who write just pointless garbage without any real sociopolitical statement, even though they claim to be at odds with the establishment and are the cultural and philosophical descendents of the beats and angry young men—believe me, [Allen] Ginsberg or [Allan] Sillitoe they are not. These are the pathetic arseholes for whom message, structure and even talent are all optional. Here in Canada, this is the sort of rubbish that winds up in Broken Pencil magazine—a magazine funded by the Canada Council, I might add.
           
Whether it’s coming from the government-funded corn-meisters or the lazy ‘whatever’ pretenders, 99 percent of what gets published these days in Canadian journals is free verse—or narrative poetry, whatever that is—I’m not sure anymore; I think it’s when someone takes a shitty, pointless short story and arranges it on the page to resemble a bad poem—something like that. This in itself is not healthy either. Such publications would have us believe that no-one writes anything else—or knows how to; that there are a few people under 45 who know how to write a haiku, and that’s about it. If I could somehow coerce or blackmail enough of the Canadian journals into publishing all the different types of poetry I write, someone like myself—a Gen-X’er who can write in both Eastern and some Western closed forms, and concrete poetry, as well as free verse—would come across as an eye-opening exception nowadays, to say the least.

How would you describe the state of poetry on the Internet? Do you participate? Love it... Hate it?

Well, as large and midsize publishing houses have steered increasingly away from poetry, more and more poets—myself included—have begun self-publishing their own chapbook and full-length collections—sometimes completely on their own, more often as part of a collective. And these aren’t simply hacks who envision themselves as poets but in reality couldn’t get a two-line epigram published in the free space of an upstart sports or homemaking magazine; these are usually poets whose work has appeared quite regularly in some of the most important litzines and journals out there. So one can’t rightfully categorise such books as ‘vanity publishing’; the true vanity publishers, the self-styled poets, have moved online, as I’ve noted in an article I wrote for Contemporary Ghazals. All the free verse that’s even too rotten and pointless for the Broken Pencil-type publications, you can certainly find your share of that on the Internet nowadays.
           
However, if one can get past the horseshit, there is some good stuff to be found online. I like most of the stuff on your site, Outsider Writers, and Litkicks has some pretty neat stuff—although I can do without the childish user-names; that reminds me too much of silly hip-hop posturing or something. Also, Levi Asher has too much of a say in airing and editing comments, and they usually only feature their own in-house reviews and essays, which is a drag. I’ve had three or four poems broadcast on Litkicks—and I consider such presentations broadcasting, by the way, not publishing as such. And I have something coming up in the next issue of the new online version of the legendary Evergreen Review—I’m very proud of that. Plus I’ve had a couple of ghazals included in an ‘issue’ of Gene Doty’s The Ghazal Page. That’s a nice little webzine. Gene’s a great chap. He must be. He puts up with me.
           
Of course, if you’re going to be ‘publishing’ and promoting yourself as an author online, you have to go through the proper channels and target the right audience. One has to make sure he or she is appearing on the most fitting, professional and beneficial sites, otherwise it’s better to stay off the net and stick to the zines and journals exclusively. I mean, if you’re aiming for the Facebook crowd, forget it! No doubt there are a few sincere exceptions, but I have a feeling that most of those silly fuckers haven’t read a book or even a newspaper article since secondary school. Facebook is the most popular of these so-called ‘social networking’ sites because it requires the least amount of brains and literary skills to complete a profile. MySpace is probably the most reputable of the bunch, due in large part to all the ninnies migrating to Facebook! A lot of writers, artists and musicians have MySpace sites, including moi.

(Autumn, 2007)


Pat Collins: What was the initial reaction to Contemporary Ghazals back in 2003 when you published the first issue?

Disinterest. At least here in Canada. I spread the word through the various journals and organisations—like the League of Canadian Parrots, er, Poets—and stirred up zilch interest. The house publications of the writers’ organisations were more interested in reporting on social events, and functioned more like the society pages of old. “Susan Musgrave giggled girlishly as she read her new elegy for the clear-cut BC rainforests, and Michael Crummey looked absolutely radiant in a blue chiffon gown”—you know, rubbish like that. Never trust an organisation where everybody’s always smiling and laughing moronically in the photographs. At the end of the day, it’s the poets south of the border who made Contemporary Ghazals a worthwhile project. Ditto for my new journal, Eastern Structures. The talent and initiative is simply lacking up here.

But have things improved any over the years?

Well, there was a young Canadian lady who had nerve enough to step up to the plate and contribute a poem to Issue 6 [of Contemporary Ghazals]—whatever her foreknowledge and intentions. So that was a minor step in the right direction. But overall, there’s not much in the way of positive news to report. When I had a copy of the Contemporary Ghazals Anthology sent to some Ontarian named Michael Dennis for coverage on his blog, he didn’t even bother to review it. I guess he didn’t have the necessary qualifications! He did, however, review Rob Winger’s The Chimney Stone, which consists entirely of phony ghazals—i.e., free verse merely arranged in couplets. That tells me everything I need to know about Dennis’s literary standards and politics. It gets even ‘better’. When I emailed Winger a couple of years ago, inviting him to contribute some real ghazals to my journal, he never even bothered to get back in touch. That’s what I call a resounding silence of the negative variety. At least no-one can say that I haven’t made the effort.

Rob Winger published a condensed version of his Ph.D. thesis on the Canadian ghazal in Arc Poetry in 2009, and never made mention of you or your magazine. Why does Winger and his associates (editors, publishers, Carleton University) insist on such omissions and misrepresentation of the facts? Why the false history? Why the deception?

Canadian poets are quite adept at changing the rules in order to accommodate their own shortcomings in the talent department. This is certainly true in regards to a form like the ghazal. Such poets—and their cronies who run the state-funded journals and publishing houses—base their arrogance on ignorance, expediency and deception. Black is white and white is black. It’s a very generic left-wing way of doing things, bordering on the Orwellian. As you’ve probably guessed, they’re also not the most informed and up-to-date people you can meet. Many of these editors and publishers are the type that screams “Hippy!” when they get cut off at an intersection by someone with thick sideburns. Some of them are such anachronistic numpties that when they hear a term like ‘goth’ or ‘grunge’, they probably envision Elvis impersonators. Believe it or not, I once received feedback regarding a short story I’d entered in the Newfoundland & Labrador Arts and Letters Competition that stated, “Good fiction doesn’t contain adverbs.” I mean, bloody hell – you can’t make up stuff like this! As for the universities, Rob Winger’s silly thesis proves that a Ph.D. from Carleton University is worth just slightly less than a Bazooka Joe bubblegum comic in VG condition. In fact, given my background in essays for The Comics Decoder website, maybe Carleton would award me a doctorate for a thesis on Bazooka Joe.

Is there any vehicle in Canada for getting the truth out there nowadays, though?

None that I know of. The state-funded writers are publishing in the state-funded journals and magazines and appearing on the state-funded cultural programmes for the sake of other state-funded writers. They write the rubbish, they write about the rubbish, they publish the rubbish, and they read the rubbish—all with the blessings of the political powers that be. The various levels of government fund their tomfoolery with our tax dollars, thereby legitimising such drivel. It’s a closed circle, a bureaucracy that perpetuates itself and keeps the undermining elements—i.e., the truth—hidden and underground. Even most of the online rubbish run by Canadians is blatantly censorious. For example, when I posted a comment criticising some ignorant, amateurish piece about John Thompson and the Canadian ‘ghazal’ on the silly Lemon Hound blog in 2014, it was promptly removed by the creepy commies in charge. I remember writing, “An ant is what it is, a grasshopper is what it is, and the ‘ghazals’ of Lorna Crozier are a humbug.” I certainly still stand by that—the entire educated world does!
           
There is actually a bright side to all this negativity, however. As I said, the rubbish that government-funded phonies like Winger and his ilk churn out is intended primarily for Canadian eyes—specifically, other writers and academia. So, if it’s any consolation, virtually no-one from outside this country reads such malarky, and certainly no-one publishes it. It’s all about reassurance and saving face in a world where Canadian writers and artists are usually thirty years behind the eight ball. Things really haven’t changed much since F. R. Scott was writing satirical poems about the self-important Canadian authors of the 1930s and ’40s. A large percentage of them are still rather deficient in the talent department, and seeking solace in each other’s mediocrity is still a means of propping themselves up.

(Summer, 2016)


L. J. McDowall: After a long hiatus, you published the Contemporary Ghazals Anthology in 2015, but in the interim your comments on Asian-form poetry attracted a great deal of criticism from the Canadian poetry establishment. Would it be fair to say that you’ve ruffled a few feathers?

Actually, the anthology came out in 2014. I’m not sure if I’ve really ruffled any feathers here in Canada—I have south of the border, definitely—especially amongst the ‘mainstream’ haiku poets in recent years; but here in Canada... Well, the Canadian literary ‘establishment’—which is largely a self-appointed bunch of government-funded hacks who usually wind up teaching in the second-rate universities—like to respond to criticism with silence. I’m not sure if they mean to convey a message of You are beneath us, and therefore not worthy of a response, or if they merely lack the nerve and intellect to be fighters. Generally speaking, these people—especially the poets—are important to each other. As I’ve said on occasions, they seek solace in each other’s mediocrity, and mean very little to anyone beyond the Canadian borders. The only time anyone from amongst Canada’s general population even pays them a blind bit of notice is when one of them writes a volume of dubious verse about some dead hockey player from half a century ago. Seriously.

The Canadian establishment has been especially silent on your contributions to the development of the ghazal form, though. As I understand it, you were the only Canadian poet included in what’s regarded globally as the seminal anthology on English-language ghazals, Ravishing DisUnities, edited by the late and sorely missed [Agha] Shahid [Ali]. It would seem that your contribution to this has been ignored deliberately, a glaring omission—here I’m thinking of Dr Winger’s scholarship on the ghazal that failed to mention you at all. Do you think this omission is because you’re essentially a boondock poet, at the coal face in the wilds of Newfoundland, or because academic poets discount the work of poets outside the university settings?


Oh, it’s a combination of things, I think. As it’s been pointed out, someone who writes anatomically correct ghazals on the Canadian front is ‘a spanner in the works’, as they say. I was a sort of ‘reverse embarrassment’ to Rob Winger’s self-serving thesis and rubbish article close to a decade ago. It was convenient that I be ignored. I made them look incompetent. As I’ve said, twisting the rules and rewriting history in order to suit your ambitions is the left-wing Canadian way. It’s a fine bit of arse-covering, but it only works so far in this Internet era. This is something so many of these Canadian chumps seem to be forgetting. These people like Winger are in my age category or younger, yet they seem to be existing solely in a pre-web print universe. They seem to have no knowledge—or at least regard for—webzines, blogs, social media, e-books, modern print-on-demand services like CreateSpace and Lulu, etc. They naively underestimate their power. They can publish some self-serving article in some print magazine and manage to conjure up maybe 10,000 readers, tops. Meanwhile, 250,000 others are writing and reading articles and blog posts to the contrary online, and the poor buggers like Winger don’t even realise it! In this regard, people like Winger are definitely ignorant of the off-campus writers out in the ‘boonies’ and underestimate us to our advantage. 


It’s interesting what you say about both the Internet and the print-on-demand publishing platforms changing the game. I know several small literary presses taking advantage of the POD revolution—places like Indigo Dreams, for example, where a large number of very high-quality poets are published each year, made possible by the Lulu platforms. I think this means there’s probably an intersection between the new poetry world and the old one—the Internet-era presses can, and do, publish poets who have successfully published with more traditional presses. However, it is the Internet, as you say, that has changed the game for both types of exposure—for example, poets who are not able to access the hearts of literary London or Edinburgh in the UK are just as able to hold their own. If anything, I think the Internet has democratised poetry in terms of location. If you do live in the boonies, the Internet strips away the importance of location, but for those still mired in print and academia, the importance and perhaps the ability or willingness to take seriously literary artists who operate outside the traditional spheres appears to be a learning curve. Would you agree that this new online environment has given classical poetry a new lease on life?

Well, it’s given all forms of poetry and artistic expression a new lease on life, provided the people contributing to the blogs, e-zines, CreateSpace productions, etc. are truly capable as creators. Frankly, I think the ‘alternative’ literary world—i.e. the blogs, webzines, POD books—is now bigger than the ‘mainstream’ literary world. It’s beating the doors down, undermining the established order, and the academics and the ageing stars of yesteryear don’t want to admit it or deal with it. And when on occasion they try and join the newfangled system, they usually wind up looking opportunistic and silly. Margaret Atwood comes to mind.
           
I often compare it to the two different worlds that increasingly comprised the music biz of the mid to late 1970s and ’80s. You may not be old enough to remember, but it was truly a case of Us vs Them in those days. Let me demonstrate what I mean with a perfect example. In the late ’70s / early ’80s, there was a young lady from Akron, Ohio not that many years older then myself, by the name of Rachel Sweet. I remember Sweet making two albums for the punk/new-wave label of the day, Stiff Records, covering the likes of Isaac Hayes, Elvis Costello and The Velvet Underground, and then seemingly disappearing from the scene by 1981 or ’82—or so I thought. I was a grown man well into my twenties or early thirties before I was made aware that Rachel Sweet had gone on to record two albums on Columbia in the early ’80s, made videos, covered Pat Benatar’s ‘Shadows of the Night’, and scored a fair-sized hit dueting with Rex Smith (of all people!) on a cover of ‘Everlasting Love’! Well! Another myth shattered! I have since met people who were of the exact opposite stripe: they had no clue that Sweet had ever been involved with the ‘alternative’ Stiff scene and had been lumped in with the likes of Costello, Lene Lovich and Wreckless Eric. That’s how divided the mainstream and alternative markets were in those days.
           
Well, if I were to talk about the contemporary literary situation in historical rock-music terms, I would say it’s 1988 or ’89, and the major labels are finally running out of ‘viable’ bunk to sell. They’ve seen the indie-label sales figures, and are just becoming familiar with the Seattle, Manchester and Vancouver scenes. Warner and A&M have already signed REM, Jane’s Addiction and Soundgarden, and there are rumours that David Geffen is starting a new major label and wants Sonic Youth first and foremost. That’s about where we are in terms of the Western literary world in 2017.

(January, 2017)


Jacqueline Jones: So, when all is said and done, which issue of Contemporary Ghazals do you think was the best?

Well, there aren’t that many to choose from, but I’d have to go with No. 3. I mean, that issue was some eight years in the making, wasn’t it. It’s actually the ‘residue’ from two individual attempts at publishing an issue. Issue 3, as initially intended, was ready to go to press in 2008, when my computer crashed, wiping out a lot of my files—including most of the poems and stuff that comprised No. 3. There was even an interview with Gene Doty that I hadn’t yet transferred to disc. That disappeared into electronic thin air. So when I’d finally gotten over the disheartening experience and decided to reboot the mag—after a few years of devoting myself to Internet matters like Red Fez and The Comics Decoder—I found myself selecting replacement material for the lost items from a whole new supermarket, so to speak. Given the circumstances and the length of time that had passed, there were plenty of poems to work with. The results were quite satisfying. The first two issues set the wheels in motion, so to speak, and featured some very good work at a time when there was very little to select from—and before there was any Internet connexion, figuratively or literally on my part. Issue 4 was also quite good, if not a little too... pat in places. I had lost touch with poets like Marcyn Del Clements and Teresa M. Pfeifer by that time, as well. It’s actually most people’s favourite issue, judging from the feedback I’ve received. No. 5 was an interesting experiment—revisiting and revising some of the old ghazals—but I don’t think it lived up to its potential. Gene Melino came on board as No. 5 was being put together, and he would play an increasingly large role over the next year or so. By the time No. 6 was being pieced together, my attention was being drawn to other projects. I can’t decide whether No. 6 is a good issue or not. I mean, I like the packaging—the Bill West cover and art throughout—but other than Gene and John Philip Drury, I don’t recognise any of the names inside! It had become a whole other ball game by that time. Actually, most of Eastern Structures No. 1 had already been stitched together before CG No. 6 was even out. That’s a good indication of how my attention had shifted. It’s kind of fun to look back over the past fifteen years at this point, but I think Eastern Structures should be the main focus of my attention—our attention—from this time onward.

Are you still on good terms with Eugene Melino, by the way? He hasn’t been showing up in Eastern Structures, I notice.

Well, he hasn’t been submitting, now, has he! Ha-ha! Seriously, though, I get along well with Gene. I think he gave too much credence to those early free-verse ‘ghazal’ poets in that article he wrote for The Ghazal Page last year, but he’s a fine fellow overall. I was glad to see that excerpt from his Immortal novella included in Pattern Recognition.

How about the others? I noticed Steffen Horstmann mentioned you and Contemporary Ghazals in the notes and afterword to his Jalsagher book of ghazals.

Yes, it was very nice of him. Steffen’s a spot-on fella. I continue to get along well with the majority of poets and editors I’ve had close dealings with. For some reason, though, people tend to turn against me when they’re on their deathbeds, so to speak. I mean, Gene Doty wasn’t very obliging when I submitted a poem to The Ghazal Page as his health was failing. He blanked me with all kinds of arbitrary baloney about proper protocol and what-have-you. I’m not sure what was going through his head at that point. A few months after his death, I got in touch with a relative or two of his, requesting that they search through his computer files for the interview I’d been doing with him when my computer crashed in ’08. I wanted to finally publish it in CG #5, but nobody got back to me. Again, I’m not sure what the problem was. And then just last year Jane Reichhold decided to shit all over Eastern Structures before snuffing it over a cliff—or whatever actually happened to her. I’ve mentioned it [Reichhold’s death] to Jim Wilson and a couple others. It all sounds very murky to me—like something out of an old Steve Ditko suspense story for Charlton. How ironic that Eastern Structures was actually modelled after her Lynx to such a degree!

What about that fellow from Australia you tried bringing on board?

Oh, Paul Smith. Yeah, I was impressed with his many translations of the old masters—Ghalib, Hafez, Attar, etc., and so I thought he would be a useful addition to the magazine—especially when it came to supplying material for the ‘Classic Revisited’ section [of Contemporary Ghazals]. He sent me PDF files of some of his books—most of which are readily available from Amazon—but I was dismayed to discover that the prefaces and afterwords were full of typos, bad grammar, etc. So I offered my editorial assistance in cleaning things up for him—I mean, they really were a mess. At first he agreed, but after I pointed out a few too many mistakes for his liking, he got in a right huff and took his ball and went home. Along the way, I discovered that this fella doesn’t actually translate all these classic ghazals of antiquity, but rather adapts other people’s literal translations from the Arabic, Farsi, Urdu, etc. into the qafia/radif format—the same as what myself and a few others have been doing for the past fifteen to twenty years! Another myth shattered, alas.

Would I be right in assuming that a good portion of what appears on The Ghazal Page is material that has been rejected by Contemporary Ghazals or Eastern Structures?

Well, other than a handful of names, I can’t say I’ve really noticed. I do suggest to people who play fast ’n’ loose with the form that they instead submit such poems to said site, knowing that Gene and his heirs have always employed a less stringent set of criteria. What percentage of them actually do and are accepted, I can’t say with any degree of certainty.

Have those old friends of yours from high school and college days shown any interest in your literary output? I’m thinking of people like Kent Burt for example.

You mean the ‘artsier’ or more bohemian ones (or so they would have you believe)?

Yes.

Nah. Most of those are still too busy rowing over who was the best guitarist—Jimmy Page or Allen Collins. Ha-ha! In all seriousness, I lost touch with the majority of those fellas decades ago. A lot of them never made the proper transition into the ’90s. If you were watching Roseanne and listening to Guns ’n’ Roses in ’88, ’89, then there’s a good chance you got left behind. Some of them were complete phonies to begin with. Others are ‘missing in action’—or in their graves. Schizophrenia and related conditions did a number on several of them. A few of them are on my Facebook friends list. They’re harmless enough additions. As for Kent Burt specifically, I exchanged a few online messages with him several years ago, and he was talking all silly and ‘divaesque’—telling me how he never wanted to be a poet, and how he sees himself as a rock star or something. Whatever. He’s released a string of digital albums under the name ‘The Linger Effect’ over the years. We’re talking three- and four-minute jangly alternative pop pieces that sound nothing like one should expect from someone like Kent. Anyway, to cut to the chase, I stopped socialising for the most part about a decade and a half ago, and I haven’t taken phone calls in several years.

Yeah, you don’t even take phone calls from Robin Tilley any longer, and you two were once close enough to write a chapbook of experimental poems together.

Well, we still exchange peculiar presents by mail on occasions. I mean, I just recently posted him a bootleg CD of rare Leonard Cohen tracks and had a copy of The Rites of Summer sent to him, and he sent me a copy of Nick Cave’s latest disc. And he still leaves the occasional message on our phone.


Which I have to check and listen to because a certain someone couldn’t be bothered with such “advanced technology”....
           
So old friends and family on Facebook are obviously not a major market for your poetry and the new novel...

Like we were talking about a few weeks ago, social media is not really conducive to selling books, magazines, comics, etc. The Internet in general has produced a ‘freebie’ culture centring on a mentality of entitlement and misappropriation: I pay my connexion fee each month, ergo the online world owes me everything. Then again, I guess Twitter- and Facebook-generated sales figures are about as good as the people with whom a person connects and adds as ‘friends’. Most Canadian Facebook accounts are littered with beer-bellied numpties who blow all their money on fancy motor vehicles and oversized houses in order to compensate for their inconspicuous breasts and undersized penises. I’m not much of a Left-leaning sort of fellow, but I would love to impose a ‘culture tax’ on these low-minded buggers. So you don’t want to buy Canadian poetry, Canadian records, attend the symphony, visit Canadian art galleries, go to the pictures, etc.? Fine. No problem—but here’s a 20% culture tax on your annual income. Try not to get too drunk and knock over your $2,500 gas barbecue with your $20,000 snowmobile on your way to the ballot box.

(February, 2017)


Bill Ectric: Your novel, The Rites of Summer, is having the uncanny effect of growing on me days after I finished reading it. I keep returning to that image of the round metallic object with an electrical cord. At first, I felt a sci-fi vibe, but now it seems more like some arcane appliance I might find in my grandmother’s attic. The question is: Would you care to comment on that metal object?

Well, on a straight-ahead narrative level, the metallic ‘Simon’ functions as little more than what Hitchcock liked to call ‘the McGuffin’. I guess there are a few McGuffins in The Rites Of Summer, actually; but this bizarre appliance is the primary one in the Henry and Mrs. Williams chapters. I can actually remember dreaming of such an object during a fever when I was probably eleven or twelve. I woke up delirious, so I guess it would be considered more of a hallucination, really. Anyway, I decided to inject it into the Williams narrative like a big question mark.
           
There is a sort of sci-fi or slipstream vibe resonating throughout the entire book. The further the plot is removed from Dicky and his day-to-day antics, the more pronounced it is. The chapters dedicated to Dicky and his delinquent, eccentric pals are grounded in the realities of that era: booze, drugs, sex, comics, punk culture, pinball parlours, etc.—much of which is now extinct and remembered unfavourably by agenda pushers of both Left and Right persuasions. The Karyn / summer-camp chapters are one step removed from reality. There’s the Morse code signals, the dirt in Karyn’s trunk, the punctuation-only section, the ‘concrete’ binocular views, and—of course—the encoded Ouija board chapter. It may not be sci-fi or supernatural in nature, but something strange is definitely going on at that camp, and it’s presented very visually for the reader. By the time one gets up into the country with Mr. and Mrs. Williams, the plot is entering the twilight zone. It’s rather Lynchian in that sense, and I have to admit that Charles Burns’s comics had an influence on the book as a whole.
           
I can see where such inexplicable plot developments and ‘McGuffins’ would leave the book lingering in the back of people’s minds for some time after—provided they’re serious readers who took some degree of interest in the story to begin with. I can also see where the more visual elements—i.e., the binocular views, the punctuation passage, the Ouija board code—might have the potential to function on a more subliminal level, and such subliminal ‘embeds’ and symbols sometimes have a way of popping up in our dreams. So given all that, I can understand the book nagging at one’s consciousness for some while after reading—like two branches rubbing together above your bedroom roof as you drift off to sleep each night.

Is there any significance to the gravel in the trunk?

Well, at the literal level, the dirt in the trunk is nothing more than a nasty prank pulled by some snooty bunkmate in Karyn’s cabin at the summer camp. Keep in mind, however, that the trunk was purchased in Rumania—or Romania (I use both spellings in the novel), of which Transylvania was historically a region. So—without giving away too much—on a symbolic level, the girl is lugging about her coffin.

Is the text that looks like gibberish actually a code?

Yes, it’s actually a coded message—containing answers to all the mysteries of the universe! Seriously, though, it is an actual narrative; one that adds an extra dimension to the story. I think it’s rather post-modernist on at least one level. It’s by no means a difficult code to decipher, so to speak, but so far people have been reporting intimidation by it.

You seem to be quite interested in codes. Let’s talk about that.

Well, I was the boy at the junior-high level who could decipher the witch runes and what-have-you on the first two or three Ozzy Osbourne solo albums! Seriously. The message on the cover of the double live album, Speak Of The Devil, was particularly long and intimidating, but I cracked it in just a couple of hours, with no guide to Nordic runes to help me. Actually, I have a longstanding interest in mysteries, detection, conspiracies, alternate histories, etc. I think it was the result of coming out of a youth/pop culture that was immersed in Scooby-Doo, Clue Club, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, etc. I mean, that stuff was everywhere in the ’60s and ’70s—children’s mystery novels published by Scholastic, Saturday-morning cartoons, Shaun Cassidy and Parker Stephenson dressed for the damned disco—you name it. Such entertainment made children curious and imaginative, but also skeptical to a large degree. In other words, we were all intrigued by the concept of ghosts, but hardly anyone actually believed in such stuff. It could all be explained away by science and a little detective work. Of course, all this changed after people like R. L. Stine and J. K. Rowling came along in the late ’80s or ’90s. Now eleven-year olds fall asleep at night fantasising about having sex with werewolves and vampires who have entered our dimension through mobile phones and laptop screens. Stein and Rowling paved the way for all this Twilight rubbish and the like. Such stuff makes the old tongue-in-cheek EC horror comics of the 1950s now look like Hemingway by comparison. The last youth shows to utilise intelligence in a positive light were the teen detective series, Les Intrépides and Shirley Holmes, back in the ’90s. If you’re masochistic enough to check out any of that rubbish that they run on YTV and Nickleodeon nowadays, you’ll soon detect an underlying message that is disturbingly commonplace in these shows: It’s cool to be an idiot and conform to the moronic masses, and to be intelligent and cultured is synonymous with being antisocial and/or sociopathic. Anyway, that desire to solve a mystery, to find and utilise the missing piece of the puzzle, shows up in my fiction to a large degree. You can find it in The Rites of Summer on various levels, and you can certainly find it in the (mostly unpublished) short stories that will comprise my fiction collection, Like a Crimson Gash, if I can ever manage to get it out. The Rites of Summer grew out of a short story that was intended for this forthcoming collection. When it got to be some forty to fifty pages long around 2011, I realised it was out of control and had to be re-imagined as a short novel.

Would you ever consider writing a graphic novel, teaming with an artist? Or are you also an artist?

I’ve been wanting to do some serious work in comics for years, if not decades. I’ve had an idea for a superhero series in the back of my head since the summer of ’95, and I also have notions for two graphic novels. The outline and some of the script for one of them has been committed to paper. Finding an artist who would take on such projects is the stumbling block. I’ve asked around, but there’ve been no definite takers. A young fellow named Gordon Lindholm, who does the Luna Lesser online strip—examples of which I’ve included on my Comics Decoder site—has expressed some interest in developing my idea for a superhero. But he’s from another generation and has a radically different perspective. And he has all sorts of stuff going on in his own young life. When you’re that age, you want to run with your own ideas first and foremost. Given his David Lynch influences, I think Rich Barrett would be the perfect artist for the partly developed graphic novel I mentioned; but he’s got his own Nathan Sorry series to contend with on top of his busy personal life.
           
The biggest problem with comics today is that most young artists feel that they don’t need a writer/scripter, that they can develop their own concepts and characters. Well, have you read some of the rubbish they tend to churn out? Unless you’re talking about someone like Dennis Hyer, believe me, Charles Schulz or Walt Kelly they are not! I used to do a bit of drawing and painting when I was younger—I was one of those who took all the art classes at the high-school level—but I don’t have the time or patience these days to try and develop or redevelop any such skills. I think the writers are actually going to come out on top in the long run, though, because various software and apps shall render the artist optional. All a person will need is a decent digital camera and a few ‘actors’. The writer will just plot out his story, gather a few friends together in the right locations and snap the photos, and then upload and convert to comic-style images. This has already been happening for some time, actually. The technology will simply get better and better. I can remember reading submissions for the Red Fez webzine, and a fellow sent in a story composed in this fashion which made us editors sit up and take notice then—and that was six or seven years ago or more. So a writer without an artist these days should probably be checking out technology, auditioning ‘actors’ and building props, rather than searching endlessly for uncooperative talent or trying to develop skills which he doesn’t have. The artist without ideas or literary skills is destined for extinction, frankly.

Do you think the moon and stars can affect people on earth?

Well, aren’t sun spots supposed to have an effect on menstrual cycles or something? Or is that the moon? I’ve always thought that Tippi Hedren’s cycle caused the birds to attack in that Hitchcock film. Either that or it was the incestuous impulses between Rod Taylor and his mother. Whatever the case, I based a short haiku sequence on it several years ago.

What about the fact that the moon affects the tides and we are mostly made of water?

Can’t say I’ve ever really thought about that. But I’m sure some of these modern-day werewolf enthusiasts would be all over such a concept. Jackie makes me watch The Walking Dead with her, by the way. That’s the show where no-one seems capable of talking above a whisper unless they’re beating someone’s head in with a modified baseball bat or burning someone alive. And people thought Twin Peaks and My So-Called Life were going to ruin a generation. Sweet Jesus.

That’s funny. My wife is a big fan of The Walking Dead. I like it okay, but not as much as her. It comes on before Columbo ends, so she watches it in the bedroom and I join her as soon as Columbo collars the murderer. Depending on the Columbo episode, sometimes I join her in bed and watch the entire Walking Dead episode. Gruesome shit.
           
You mentioned Crimson Gash. Is it “Crimson Gash” or “A Crimson Gash”? Did I get that right?

Like a Crimson Gash. A no-prize to those who can figure out where I stole that phrase from!

Did you ever hear that story from the 1960s—possibly an urban legend—about a crazed, gibbering hippy that the police picked up, and he was eating human knuckles? Or he had human knuckles in his pocket?

No, I don’t think I’ve heard that one. That was the sort of story Jim Morrison was fond of telling or concocting, according to some accounts. We tend to overlook the fact, but quite a few street legends and peculiar tales came out of the ‘swinging’ ’60s and ’70s. Quite a few focussed on Jim Morrison, come to think of it. I love all the bizarre stories, theories and shady people that have come out of the woodwork in the wake of his death—or whatever actually happened to him. And the L.A. Woman album—or should I say AWOL Man album—is a real gem of a clue source, with its Morrison-understated album cover, anagrams, and references to changelings and bathrooms. Priceless! A true contender for Greatest American Rock Album of All Time.
           
Actually, I’ve always seen the New York City of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s as a really dark, morbid place. I mean, there’s the artsy weirdness and treachery of the early Beat movement... the Warhol suicide paintings... the high mortality rate amongst the hangers-on at his [Warhol’s] Factory... the bleakness of those Velvet Underground albums... those scenes from Midnight Cowboy—like the strung-out mother with the rubber rat in the cafe... the brothel scenes from Taxi Driver.... It all seemed very disturbing taken as a whole. So much so, that when I started hearing as a teenager about how AIDS had supposedly gotten its North American start in San Francisco in the mid to late ’70s, I remember thinking, Hmm... This doesn’t sound right. My suspicions have since been confirmed by well-documented revelations about strains of the virus showing up in New York between the late ’50s and late ’60s. That’s probably just the tip of the iceberg. I have an uncanny feeling that various strains have been introduced and reintroduced outside of Africa going back to the 1930s and ’40s, possibly. And via all sorts of routes—maybe even some nefarious ones.

So who are your influences?

Ah... the must-ask question—and a difficult one for me, given the fact that there are so many different ‘strands’ to my output. Starting way back in high school, the early free verse was influenced primarily by a combination of Dylan Thomas, beat poets like [Allen] Ginsberg and [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti, and rock poets like Jim Morrison and Lou Reed. You can find a good cross section of that early stuff in Direct Lines to Hell (2015). By the mid ’90s, my attention had definitely shifted to haiku and tanka, owing mainly to my reading the likes of Raymond Roseliep, Virgil Hutton and Gary Hotham in various anthologies. That gradual move towards Japanese poetry roughly coincided with my university years. Speaking of which, Tom Dawe was a good professor to have in uni because he was quite proficient in both free verse and haiku.
           
By the late ’90s, I’d discovered the ghazal—the real ghazal—courtesy of an article by Agha Shahid Ali and a few examples in Lynx by people like Hemant Kulkarni and William Dennis. I think the ghazal form in itself was a major influence, and younger—mostly Gen-X—poets like Steffen Horstmann, Denver Butson, Daniel Hales and Yours Truly have all developed our own distinct styles over the past couple of decades because there weren’t any real and proper precedents to imitate in the English language in the first place. Prior to us, there were merely a handful of ‘big-name’ dabblers and a few poets who were starting to experiment with the form in middle age. As for the classic Indian and Middle Eastern poets who had been translated into English, the vast majority of the translators made very little or no attempt to preserve the traditional attributes of the form. Of the free-verse ‘ghazal’ poets—Adrienne Rich, John Thompson, Phyllis Webb—I won’t even speak, except to say that their influence on a generation of naïve Canadian poets was particularly detrimental. So, like I said, we younger poets were for the most part left to ‘reverse engineer’ a few inchoate English-language examples and semi-correct translations, and carve out our own unique styles and themes from there onward.
           
As for the fiction, well, my influences are all over the place. If I could narrow it down to a particular genre or two, though, I’d have to say I’ve been influenced primarily by suspense, mystery and some ‘slipstream’, I suppose. But my influences come from a range of mediums—not just old Laird Koenig novels, Shirley Jackson stories and children’s mysteries, as most people would probably suspect. I mean, David Lynch’s films and television series, Steve Ditko and Nicola Cuti horror stories for 1970s Charlton Comics, Twilight Zone and Tales of The Unexpected, early Amazing Spider-Man—all have had some impact on my fiction. In the case of The Rites of Summer, stuff like Joan Lindsey’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Charles Burns’s Big Baby comics, and even a Schulz/Peanuts story arc came into the mix—along with semi-biographical sketches of people I once knew, of course. Even the idea of having two chapters unfold at once on the same page, in two separate columns, finds its origin in underground film and rock music, believe it or not.

Have you read Pale Fire by Nabokov? How about Henry James’s short story,The Author of Beltraffio’?

I’ve never read anything by Henry James or Vladimir Nabokov in my life, believe it or not—not even Lolita. Some of the true bohemian spirits out there will probably be a little shocked and disillusioned to hear this.

So, how would the lives of youth in the time of The Rites of Summer—35 to 40 years ago—compare to young people’s lives today?

Well, you were allowed to grow up back then, weren’t you. I think that would be the bottom line. In fact, it was encouraged back then. Those were still the days when a boy was often taught how to smoke by his grandfather or an Uncle Clem. There were no helmets, no mandatory seat belts, no fast-food-free cafeterias, etc.—and no computerised gidgets! It was a recipe for freedom and socialising. Young people still managed to get outdoors in those days. They even had their own centres of culture and social organisation in the form of pool halls and pinball parlours—you know, so-called ‘teen hang-outs’. Those places have been as good as outlawed in recent decades. On the surface, such restrictivism is supposed to be about keeping young people healthy, happy and safe. But it doesn’t hurt the middle-aged powers-that-be to see childhood prolonged and the younger generations kept docile and out of politics. Such people may no longer study much history, but they haven’t forgotten the turmoil of the Vietnam era—or even the Gulf War / Grunge era, for that matter. The goal is to keep youth disorganised, childish and dependent, while simultaneously cutting down on the number of expensive, foolish civil suits that come before the courts because ‘Li’l Jimmy’ fell off his skateboard or ‘Li’l Janis’ got kissed by that boy with a crush. A youth culture has been allowed to develop that degrades intelligence, sophistication, maturity and guts. You know what I mean. Let me tell you a little story... One day five years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were browsing in a local Walmart—just passing some time, ‘casing the joint’. Suddenly we came upon the book section, and lo and behold, there was a polite-looking young lady of maybe twelve or thirteen standing there, wearing a decent blouse and tweed blazer, seriously reading a thick hardcover novel or biography. Thirty-five to forty years ago, she would have gone unnoticed—such a girl would have been virtually ubiquitous. But in 2012? She was a freak of friggin’ nature! All of us Gen X’ers and baby boomers were staring at her as if she were an holographic unicorn, while a few girls in her own age category who were passing by rolled their eyes and turned up their noses at ‘the weirdo’! Now that is a perfect example of how times have changed—for the worse. I can barely stand to look at some of these wretched little mutations today in their teens and twenties. I mean, I’m seeing what should be young men, in their mid twenties, and they haven’t learnt how to dress themselves or use a comb yet. With their baseball caps, baggy trousers and short unkempt hair, they remind me of nine-year-old Little Leaguers from half a century ago. It’s pathetic. And the parents have become so jaded and self-obsessed themselves, they just stand back and let it happen. We already have a generation out there who’s been raised on a bizarre combination of Oprah Winfrey, Harry Potter, Focus On The Family, and Mothers Against Drunk Driving! It’s only going to get worse, and it’s right up the government’s alley. They’re laughing! What happened to the days when every fourteen-year-old fella wanted to hitch-hike across Canada or worm his way into Rachel Sweet’s dressing room, and every fourteen-year-old girl wanted to shack up with Marc Bolan or have Leonard Cohen’s baby?

Turning to politics, it amazes me that sometimes I see old clips of Reagan, and he actually says things I only wish Donald Trump would say.

Well, there’s no question about it, Trump is doing wonders for the historical reputations of Reagan, Johnson, and even Nixon and Bush Jr.

I actually believe the reason Trump won is, so many people voted for a third-party candidate, knowing they wouldn’t win, but at least their conscience would be clear.

That’s quite possible.

What do you think about third-party candidates?

Well, I’m accustomed to third-, fourth- and fifth-party candidates here in Canada.... I think a major part of the problem revolves around the fact that there are no longer any centrist parties on either side of the border. All the parties move further and further to the Left or Right as time goes on. In the meantime, I’d wager that as much as 80% of the population see themselves as centrist and therefore no longer truly relate—thus the lower and lower voter turnouts in each election.

In the US, it’s getting more and more like one of those fake “reality” shows.

I agree with [Canadian media commentator] Rex Murphy: I think a certain large segment of the population no longer knows the difference between fantasy and reality (and ‘reality’).

You’ve been writing ghazals, which is a form of Muslim poetry, for a long time now. You must have some thoughts on the ongoing fear of Islam in the West.

The fear has been exacerbated in the wake of the Syrian ‘troubles’, the subsequent mass emigrations, and the coming of Donald Trump, certainly. But how much of it is really fear of Islamic extremists—which we have had with us always—and how much of it is actually plain ol’-fashioned bigotry looking for a fresh excuse to manifest itself? Judging from some of the online commentary I’ve been seeing, especially on Facebook and Twitter, a good portion of it falls under the latter category. Most of these poor bastards who do all the squawking have never really talked to and broke bread with a Muslim in their lives. They’re mostly disenfranchised white males, secular-Christian and working-class by birth, who lack purpose and direction, and envision themselves as the last of a dying breed—which, in all honesty, they may very well be. In other words, their bigotry has more to do with their perceived small penises, mid-life crises, and ‘no-smoking’ signs in pubs than what it does fear of fifth columns or terrorism of any sort.
           
Another factor is the result of hardcore multiculturalism: the immigrants who have been making countries like Canada their home over the past few decades have not been encouraged to blend into a ‘melting pot’ like those from previous eras. As a result, we now have ethnic enclaves that are increasingly miniature countries within cities. Well, just think about it: sexy Punjabi girls from traditional Sikh families, for example, having to live at home and obey curfews well into their twenties—this presents an obstruction entailing resentment on the part of young men that harkens back to the male insecurities which history has come to associate with the witch hunts of the Middle Ages.
           
As for the Trump phenomenon, I think President Donald is the ‘Boaty McBoatface’ of heads of state. You may recall just a year or so ago, over in the UK, they held a poll to name some fancy new submarine [ultimately named the RRS Sir David Attenborough], and the cynical and infantile general public went with ‘Boaty McBoatface’. Well, Donald Trump is the Boaty McBoatface of American presidents. The whole Trump phenomenon is the political equivalent of the boat-naming fiasco. Frankly, I think voting for Donald Trump is like voting for some bastard son of Walt Disney who has been abandoned by Gypsies and raised by dingoes. His getting elected is indicative of the immature state of mind in a devolving contemporary Western world.

(March, 2017)




Ghazal

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

Adapted from Agha Shahid Ali’s translation by R. W. Watkins


Your sorrow’s seeking someone among those men who once frequented these roads—
someone whose blood, for you, would be lost.
But those who once were willing to expire for you in an instant have gone;
now forever, no doubt, to ye lost.

The night in all its darkness did await with me until the dawn for you;
admitting loss, Loved One, it then left.
My soothers grimaced at my retained tears and left disappointed as well,
thinking my grief—held back—sorely lost.

There’s neither chance of a night impassioned nor way to intimate distress;
there’s nothing left; just now, all is gone.
There’s no room for fuss or space allowed for advice in this era of ours—
the wild heart’s rights, Despot, to thee lost.

It was me whose shirt was dyed and designed with blood disengaged on the streets;
accusations, like inks, browned the spots.
I labelled such stains a style so-anew and went to my lover’s abode,
where one could then, in crowds, find me lost.

No longer is there a place where be found that frenzy of passion so wild;
wedlock’s fabrics, whilst raw, are not worn.
With what will you fill that rope? And who’s asked that a lovers’ gallows you raise?
Those once charged proud, Hangman, have we lost.


(Included in the recently published Contemporary Ghazals: An Introductory Collection; available from Amazon.com)



Ghazal: Grows Cold

Norma Jenckes


We build fires of driftwood and yet the night grows cold.
We watch the waves for hours but that sight grows cold.

Bonfire, fire works, World Trade Center, atom bomb –
anything humanity can ignite grows cold.

Oh, how my face burned when friends laughed
at love marks, what’s left when even his bite grows cold?

The poet “warms his hands before the fire of life”
and departs when something bright grows cold.

When I was young I thought that I could fix
the world’s wrongs, but being right grows cold.

Baby’s first step, your first kiss, mother's breast,
only liars declare that delight grows cold.

Do you recall how Dante found a circle in hell
where even pride and envy and spite grows cold?

Hector and Achilles, David and Goliath,
Beowulf and Grendel: the hottest fight grows cold.

The Earth will be a cinder and dead suns spiral
away, the cosmos darkens when starlight grows cold.

Oh Norma, such bad company you keep. They say
we fight the good fight, but violence’s blight, grows cold.


(To be included in the forthcoming third issue of Eastern Structures)