Wolfgang Carstens is the author of numerous poetry collections, publisher at Epic Rites Press, and organizer and host of Poets Underground, a poetry show that celebrates and showcases the best and brightest authors currently working the marrow of contemporary poetry. He lives in Canada with his wife, five kids, grandson, mortgage and death. His poetry is printed on the backs of unpaid bills. More information at www.wolfgangcarstens.com.
Firstly, I feel very fortunate to have been given a peek at your latest collection of poems, Hell and High Water. They are sexy, funny and feel deeply authentic. Each poem is like a short story that leaves the reader wanting more. Being only familiar with this selection of your poetry, I can only wonder whether humor has always been a part of your oeuvre. It lends the whole a kind of lightness--I would hesitate to say, levity. Is the humor, that is often dark, unique to all your work, or just this batch? And from where do you feel it comes? Please expound.
I am the most obnoxious person—the guy who always has a witty retort, a sarcastic comment, and a joke about everything. That being said, my first two books Crudely Mistaken For Life and The Abyss Gazes Also are two of the darkest books on the planet. There isn’t much humor to found in those pages. These books were written during a period when Death was working overtime to snuff out everyone I knew. My grandmother, whom I loved dearly, had recently died. My friends were dropping like flies. A family member had been murdered. I had been pallbearer at six funerals in ten months. It was absolute brutality. Hell, I almost died myself. That was the background for my first two books. Death had become so commonplace in my house that even my seven-year-old son had started asking questions.
“where was i before i was born?”
my son asks.
“you were a part of me,”
“where will i go when i die?”
“you will again become a part of me.
we’ve always been together—
we’ll always be together.”
“will you bring me back to life
when i die?” my son asks.
“yes,” i answer,
“i’ll always bring you back to life.”
“and if you die,” he says,
“i’ll bring you back to life.”
“then you will be my daddy,” i say.
“yes,” he says,
happy in this thought.
“wonderful,” i say,
thankful that the serious questions
as my son runs back outside to play
this question of nothingness
surfaces like an ugly, unseen monster
and i think:
if only it were that simple.
—from The Abyss Gazes Also
By the time Factory Reject rolled around, things were starting to get back to normal. The poems in Factory Reject, although still quite dark, have an edge of humor to them. As the poem “listening” illustrates:
to the old ideas CD
in the Chevy,
“is this that guy
who likes to talk
instead of sing?”
“yes,” i say “his name
is Leonard Cohen.”
“he sounds ancient,”
she says, “how old
“he’s turning seventy-nine
this year,” i say.
“that’s really old,”
she says, “he’s gonna die soon.”
“well, then every birthday
must be pretty special for him,” i say.
“what would you write
on his birthday card?”
Raven thinks for a minute,
then says “happy birthday Leonard.
don’t look into the light.”
—from Factory Reject
Every book from Factory Reject onward incorporates humor in some way to make the poems work.
You've made several references to Bukowski in your work. What do you love most about his writing? Any reservations where his work is concerned? Who, besides Bukowski, has impressed you as a poet?
I have never read Bukowski. Not a poem, story, or a single book. I simply have no desire to read his work. I did create a poem in Hell and High Water from a Bukowski quote a friend shared with me—but, in my entire body of work, I have never referenced Bukowski. Funny, when my first book Crudely Mistaken For Life came out, one reviewer wrote that he “could clearly see the influence that Bukowski had on my work.” I wrote him back asking “Who the fuck is Bukowski?” I had no idea who he was. I had to Google him. Now, while I could expound upon the reasons why I have no desire to read Bukowski, my efforts are better spent talking about authors who have inspired me. The list is very small—three authors, in fact: Rob Plath, John Yamrus, and Henry Denander.
I was introduced to the poetry of Rob Plath in 2008 and it revolutionized the way I looked at poetry. Prior to reading Plath, I believed poetry was reserved for lofty ideas and emotions. Plath, however, not only encouraged writers to reach into the marrow of their bones and write about their darkest beings, he also encouraged writers to write like an ogre was banging on their door. Plath taught that life was short, urgency was paramount, and that nobody should go to their graves with songs still trapped inside them. That was 2008. I have been writing like a maniac ever since. Plath also taught me about writing in everyday, ordinary language—about how to write poems like 911 calls—“pared down, to the point and urgent.” The analogy here is that you would never use rhyme and meter when you phoned 911 for help—nor should you in poetry.
Now, to fully understand the importance of reading Plath and the impact his work had on me, you need to understand that I cut my teeth on 19th century French surrealist poets like Baudelaire, Mallarme, Verlaine, etc., the British Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake and Keats, etc., and on Edgar Allan Poe. Prior to being exposed to the work of Rob Plath, I was writing sonnets! It wasn’t until I started reading Plath that I started writing free verse.
John Yamrus, in turn, taught me four important lessons. The first was to eliminate titles from my poetry. Titles, as Yamrus put it to me, are unnecessary additions to the poem that only serve to treat readers like idiots—which, clearly they are not. If the title doesn’t add something necessary to the understanding of the poem (meaning, context, etc.), it has no business being there. It took me a few years to come around to Yamrus’s way of thinking—but by my third book Factory Reject, I had abandoned titles completely. In my newest book Hell and High Water, only two poems have titles: “Slave Lake, 2014” and “caught watching porn”—both of which serve to add context to the poems. As my poem “Slave Lake, 2014,” reprinted below illustrates:
Slave Lake, 2014
we were on vacation.
my wife was mad at me.
she’s always mad at me
about one thing or another.
we were at the beach.
she wanted to leave
and i wanted to fish.
she made her stand on the shore
with the kids and the dog.
i dragged my lawn chair
twenty feet in the water
and sat down.
come hell or high water,
i wasn’t leaving.
i got both.
and high water.
—from Hell and High Water
The work of John Yamrus also taught me some of the most important lessons about writing. It has taught me about the importance of economy in language—about cutting extraneous words from the poem—about cutting everything away until you reach bone.
It has taught me about line breaks and how to use the negative space to create flow and tension in my work. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how to get the reader involved in the poem and make them a willing participant in the interpretation. When I look back to my first books, they seem wordy to me. The poems are constructed like furniture, with every screw, hook, and fastener in place. They are sturdy. When you reach Factory Reject, however, the poems start getting shorter, more economical, more “choppy,” and I start taking greater risks with the material. This is especially true in my newest book Hell and High Water, as the poem “Len” illustrates. Here, success or failure, depends entirely on the reader to “get” the joke:
the iwantmycarpetcleaned.com van
that he’d seen
driving around town
was fucking hilarious.
until the day
he came home
early from work
and found it
in his driveway.
—from Hell and High Water
Finally, the work of Henry Denander had a profound impact on me. The first book of his that I read was The Accidental Navigator, released through Lummox Press. Denander’s blue collar, everyday style of writing immediately hooked me and his courage to poke fun at himself in these poems was a revelation. I found myself writing poem after poem while reading his book. Factory Reject, in fact, was inspired by reading Denander. I have since purchased copies of all Denander’s books and he has become my favorite poet to read.
As for Bukowski—I don’t know his work from a hole in the ground. I prefer to keep it that way. I do, however, encourage readers to search out books by Rob Plath, John Yamrus, and Henry Denander. If you want to put your finger on the pulse on what’s happening in underground literature, this is a great place to start.
Is poetry your main genre as a writer? Have you written flash, or thought of expanding some of your poetic ideas into different kinds of narratives?
Poetry is my main genre, although I have written flash fiction, short stories, screenplays, philosophical essays, book reviews, and am presently working on a book of non-fiction. The way it works for me is ideas have particular forms—or perhaps better put, the ideas choose their own vehicles. Some are poems; some are stories; others become essays. I have three short stories coming out in print soon in Brenton Booth’s print magazine The Asylum Floor. I strongly encourage readers to check it out. Keep your eye on my website www.wolfgangcarstens.com for more information and ordering details.
In what ways do you envision expanding as a poet in the future?
One of the main goals in my work is to hammer home the idea that readers should “Live today because tomorrow never comes.” Don’t take tomorrow for granted. It may never come. So, while it’s easy to put items on a bucket list and be content that you will accomplish these things when you have more time, when your kids are grown, when you retire, you need to be aware that Death always has his hand on your shoulder—and He loves to ruin your carefully laid plans. Live ferociously!
Clare’s unfinished watercolor landscape
(the one she always said she’d finish “tomorrow”)
for two bucks at the estate sale.
it was a running joke between us
for over half a decade.
whenever we’d run into each other
at the bank or the grocery store
i’d ask, “how’s my landscape coming?”
“almost finished,” she’d say,
when i brought it home,
i took a black sharpie
and printed “Live today!
Tomorrow never comes!”
in the white space
where the mountains should’ve been.
i always knew the landscape
was meant to be mine.
i just never guessed
i would be the one to finish it.
—from Factory Reject
I mention this because, as a writer, you never want to keep writing the same book. That is, my Crudely Mistaken for Life, The Abyss Gazes Also, and Bulletproof are—for all intents and purposes, the same book. They all scream my “Live today” message. And that’s fine—but it’s also important to stretch your wings and write books that are completely different. I have done this with my Rented Mule, released through NightBallet Press. It’s a collection of “working” poems; with my Enjoy Oblivion, a collection of poems about my father; with my Savage Love, a collection of poems that explore the “size matters” phenomena; with my books Only the Dead and Raising the Dead, released through Svensk Apache Press, and are fully illustrated by Janne Karlsson; with my newest book Hell and High Water, released through Six Ft. Swells Press, which is a collection of “relationship” poems; and next year my From Dusk to Sandra Dawn, a collection of poems about my disastrous first marriage, will be released through Bareback Press. As a writer of poetry, I want to keep bringing new and different collections to my readers. Beyond that, I want my poems to keep getting more economical—I want to keep cutting until I hit bone. Also, I want to keep getting better at promoting my work. I owe everything to my publishers—without their support and hard work, my books would not exist—so it’s always important to me to bring home a winner for them.