Friday, March 11, 2016

HWA POETRY SHOWCASE VOL 3: MEET DAVID E. COWEN

With the third installment of the HWA Poetry Showcase starting up in April, I wanted to do a short series with this year's judges to give some background and some insight into both poetics and its market for authors who are writing poetry today. Our first judge in the series is  David E. Cowen. Check out his work and take a moment to savor his words.

1.      What is your relationship to poetry as a writer? As a reader?

A. Poetry is a vexatious and harsh companion always complaining that I’m not keeping up with it. It is an addiction. For every day I tell myself I just can’t write anymore some image will trigger a thought, then a line then a stanza and then a poem. Writing is not therapy for me. It is not bearing my soul to a world that frankly doesn’t need to know my soul. Writing poetry is artistic creation; childbirth with mental labor pains throughout the process. When writing I am Prometheus giving fire to humanity – mind you some embers glow brighter than others. This prompts me to always want to write something strong and well crafted. This also means that I do not mass produce my poetry which means I write fewer poems. My hope is that what I finish becomes something wonderful.

As a reader I’m looking for intelligent art that makes my mind go deep into itself. I keep by my bedside the thin volume of Alan Ginsburg’s poems entitled Howl. I like to go through it sometimes just to feel the sense of his mind – “America I've given you all and now I'm nothing. America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.” Two lines framing such power and realism while heralding the “Beat” movement. Wonderful. I also like the works of Pablo Neruda and the loving wisdom he gives – “When I close a book I open life;” “I can write the saddest lines.” As a reader I read poetry for the power of words and the after effects of thought provoking verse.

2.      Who is the first poet that you remember reading, and what was your reaction to him/her?

A. The first poet that sticks in my mind is A.A. Milne, known for the Winnie the Pooh books. He also wrote several volumes of verse. It was the only set of books I have memory of my mother reading to me. His verse was sweet and simple and went to my heart. His poem “Halfway Down” stirred me because he allowed me to recognize that it was okay for me to have my moments and special places where I felt I could find quiet, solitary sanctuary in a very harsh and unforgiving environment. My personal portal into another realm. I recall feeling exactly as the poem read

I’m not at the bottom,

I’m not at the top;

so this is the stair

where

I always

stop.

I loved Milne’s rhyme and meter. I loved the soft, gentle beauty of the world he created. It seemed so safe to share “Vespers” with Christopher Robin. I still know portions of “Disobedience” from heart. No horror in Winnie and Piglet, but a lot of imagination. Makes me a bit of a “softie” I guess.  

3.      Who are some of the poets that you’ve been reading lately and what do you specifically like about their work?

A. I have embarked on a rediscovery of some old favorites and classics. I re-read much of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Michaelbrent Collings recent success in self-publishing prompted me to look at Whitman’s poems again. Most people forget that the several versions of Whitman’s great volume were self-published. Whitman was an early influence on me. His style and openness, the crispness of his imagery and timeless nature of his work opened my eyes. I’ve also plunge into the narrative poems of George (Lord Bryon) Gordon; an early dark poet. Bryon was a bestselling poet in his day before the novel became popular. It is fascinating to read such sustained narratives. I think it’s important to reconnect with the great poets; to remind myself how I was inspired to write.

I also recently had the pleasure of previewing Peter Salomon’s newest volume of verse PsuedoPsalms Saints and Sinners. In this volume Salomon examines the essence of true horror in this world asking the ultimate question "I wonder where God has gone." A very brave question and one that seems to be a bit of a taboo in the genre. From poems examining the inner thoughts of serial killers to the abandonment of a people during the Holocaust Salomon's skillfully crafted poetry reflects that true horror resides behind the everyday. The smile of the friendly stranger, the indifference of governments and the futility of blind reliance in divine intervention. Only love and poetry offer redemption and hope. It’s a very good read.

Finally, I’ve been trying to catch up on all the Stoker nominees, always good reading. 

4.      How do you define speculative poetry?

A. I’ve answered this question last so I could savor the possibilities of answers. In 2012 Rattle Magazine, a “mainstream” poetry publication, featured speculative poetry in one of its issues. In the introduction the editors postulated that “speculative writing always creates a new world.” I think part of this is true though over simplistic. Deeper into the meaning I believe speculative poetry focuses on the gothic impulses of the poet and reader seeking to peel away the façade of reality to reveal the true inner nature of ourselves through allegorical fantasy, science fiction, horror or surrealism. Regardless of the genre speculative poetry exposes what is inside us; the hero and demon that rattles inside us all.

5.      When did you find yourself starting to connect with the form? Do you have a preference for style when you write? A particular style you like to read?

 
A. Let’s face it. Every single poet has faced the question “Can’t you write something happy?” Then in revenge you write about a happy serial killer.

 There’s just this inner melancholia that often affects poets. I’m certainly a good friend of self-reflection and the hot toddy glow of a good sulk. The turn to the “dark” is just a word away; reaching beyond daffodils and self-indulgent confessional rambling. I have always written about a hard, often cold and unforgiving world. This is not to foment depression or create hopelessness; just an acceptance of reality. I firmly believe that if we acknowledge reality we then learn to cope with it. Because of this many of my pieces were simply too dark in nature to submit to more “mainstream” poetry venues and periodicals. I was many years into my writing before I began to explore dark and speculative poetry publications and the varied forms of this type of poetry. I discovered true “science fiction poetry” through a fellow Texan poet Juan Manuel Perez who gave a reading at the poetry group I run in the Houston/Galveston area. His focus was on weird and off beat speculative poetry which fascinated me. It made me go back through my prior work and I could see this stifled darkness in my poems. So, I opened the gates and went with it. The result was my book “The Madness of Empty Spaces (Weasel Press 2014)” which was very well received and reviewed.

I don’t try to write metered poetry much. I know some speculative poets appear to be trying to recreate the classical styles of Poe or even Bryon. However modern natural speech is so divorced from the old iambic pentameter that I don’t think it works most of the time. That style also seems to steer some poets into falling into patterns of cliché.

I like to craft a poem with rich imagery, layers and an emotional impact. Southern Gothic seems to be well suited for dark poetry.

For my reading tastes, it is very eclectic. I believe that you have to keep your interests varied to avoid falling into old writing traps. Also, reading good poetry inspires writing good poetry. For example, “Four Elements (Bad Moon Books 2014)” written collaboratively with Charlee Jacob, Rain Graves, Marge Simon, Linda Addison is a wonderful work mixing beautiful illustrations and verse. At the same time I still love to read Frost, Gwendolyn Brooks, Galway Kinnell and Whitman.  

6.      Where do you think poetry stands in the market place today? Do you think speculative poetry is on the rise, or is it a dead art?

A. Juxtaposing the words poetry and “market” is like trying to connect the opposite ends of two magnets. There’s no mass market for poetry of any kind except maybe Penguin Classics volumes used by schools. This forces poets to become Fuller Brush salespersons peddling their books at every coffee shop and book shop that will let you read. You truly sell only by direct sales from personal appearances.

When Lord Bryon published his “The Corsair” in 1814 the pamphlet reportedly sold 10,000 on its first day of release. Selling 10,000 copies of a book of poetry today would put you on Amazon’s top ten bestsellers in poetry for life. Mainstream poetry is drowning. There is no business model that can justify the cost of a “perfect bound” volume of books. The much maligned e-book may save poetry from financial extinction.

While the sales of poetry, speculative or otherwise, is in a dead zone, interest in poetry is not. With the advent of the MFA programs in many universities a new market for teaching and workshopping poetry was created. To some extent, more people make a living on poetry – usually teaching – than ever.

From personal observation only (who does studies on these things?) I think poetry is like life -- to steal a line from Michael Crichton – “Poetry finds a way.” Poetry may be low in the public eye but there are a lot of poetry societies and groups. Houston, which does not have a reputation as a “literary” town, has multiple readings every month. Somehow, despite all the coroner reports of its death, Poetry survives.

Dark poetry, even with its ancient roots in the works of Homer and Dante, has a chance to grow. It offers something meatier to a reader. There is both the art of poetry and good story telling. I think we need to find a better way to develop an audience. I’d like to see more longer poems paired with artists for graphical displays; or short film makers. All of this could build an audience.

The one thing the HWA offers dark poets is an audience for poetry volumes through the Stoker nomination process. Turning that into financial success is a long way off.

7.      What are some of your favorite magazines/presses for poetry, either to publish with or to purchase work?

A. Jeanie Rector’s The Horror Zine. The Literary Hatchet by Lizzie Borden Press. Weasel Press’ Vagabonds, The Haunted Traveler and Degenerates are nice reads. The Pedestal. S.T. Joshi’s Spectral Realms. I enjoy reading the poetry in Strange Horizons as well.  

8.      What is the one stereotype you think poetry has that you’d like to see it shed?

A. “More people write poetry than read it.” I don’t know how many times I hear this. I also want to spit at the fact that the statement is unforgivingly true. I want to go to poetry readings where the audience is not entirely fellow poets. If we are just talking about genre poetry I want to end the stereotype that prompted Paul Cook’s article in Amazing Science lambasting most speculative poetry as “embarrassingly bad.” That is how “mainstream” poets and critics view genre poetry. They don’t see it as “legit.” I think this is very short sighted and simply snobbishness. The narcissistic self-reflection of much of the mainstream “MFA” crowd cannot have any more legitimacy just because it’s not “genre.” But to stand up to this type of stereotype, speculative poets have to maintain their standards. Poems must be good because they are, not because they are genre poems.

9.      What advice do you have for fiction writers who want to start experimenting with the art form?

A. Take up photography. You don’t need to buy a fancy camera to do it, most cell phones work quite well. When you make yourself look for angles, perspectives, points of view and framing every time you walk into a room or take a walk outside, you begin to train your brain to think in poetical terms. Fiction can be a sweeping landscape indulging in every shop, café and spectral flicker of shade on the road. Poetry is a photograph; a captured second in time of a much larger story. Every window frame and every reflection in a window is a potential photograph. When you look at a room or a structure or a discrete segment of a landscape envision how this image will appear, not just in the lens, but in a photograph after you have cropped it and massaged the contrast, gamma and color saturation (or shadow and lighting if grayscale). Create art with the image.

Creating and crafting a poem is really no different. A poem cannot tell the entire story of any life or event. As with photography, focus on what I call the horror of ordinary things. Every item in your curio cabinets has a backstory. Each item has been touched by something or someone long gone. For every story there is a tale of sorrow, loss, terror or disaster. There is a story there. Find it and run with it. Populate your poems with images. Smell and color are very strong tools in poetry. The reader’s poetical experience should be like lifting the lid on a simmering soup or sauce. The sight of the bubbling fluid, the overpowering smell rising with the steam, all causing the mouth to water.

If photography just doesn’t suit you study the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. You’ll see that in his sweeping paintings every corner is laced with bizarre creatures and happenings. Guess at the backstory for each and make that impression into a poem.

However, beware the cliché. Genre is never an excuse for poor poetry. Genre is not an invitation to languish in cliché. The most successful speculative poetry stands on its own as good poetry, not just good genre poetry. I love the “Goth-O-Matic Poetry Generator” (http://www.deadlounge.com/poetry/created.html) as a teaching tool for what to avoid. You quickly realize the merely using the words “dark”, “dread”, “fear”, horror” and “mists” isn’t going to create a good poem.

If you write great fiction, you can pull off great poetry. Convey an emotional impact that is layered – is there a meaning beyond some scene of horror or terror? Is the poem an allegory to life? Is your werewolf a symbol for addiction? Is the possessed housewife a symbol for the abused or co-dependent spouse? Is there even another layer and meaning beyond that? Once you think in these terms your tools are almost unlimited.

10.  With the HWA Poetry Showcase coming up this April, what are you particularly looking for as a judge?

A. First, let me make a suggestion to HWA members -- SUBMIT!!!! Blow off the dust of that secret journal you keep where you have dabbled with dark verse but didn’t think you should share it. The Showcase is your chance to share this verse amongst friends. Every writer of fiction I’ve ever met has written poetry of some sort. Remember that prose poetry is poetry too. When I read Cormack McCarthy’s The Road it was clear to me that the novel was truly a narrative prose poem. Get out that paragraph of verse-like prose you once had to take out of a novel or story but you kept because you like it so much. Tweak it to see if it isn’t really a poem that needs a good home.

I want to see poems that get beyond the cliché. The acts of a murderer are not as important to me as to the “why” of the murderer. Even monsters have reasons for what they do. Don’t be afraid to borrow from mythology and folklore – just create something new with it. Hansel ends up eating Gretel along with the witch. Van Helsing runs off with the Brides of Dracula. Let the imagination go.

Overall though I love impact. I love well written poems that stimulate thought; make me ponder the layers of meaning (without being overly obscure).

 
Bio: David E. Cowen is the author of “The Madness of Empty Spaces,” (Weasel Press, November 2014), which was on the 2014 Bram Stoker Award Preliminary Ballot and was  nominated for the 2014 SFPA Elgin Award as well as listed on Ellen Datlow's Best of Horror Recommended List for 2014. His other volume of poetry is entitled "Sixth and Adams" (PW Press 2001).  His work has appeared in the 2014 and 2015 editions of the Horror Writers' Association's Horror Poetry Showcase, The Horror Zine, Literary Hatchet, Degenerates: Voices for Peace, “Dark Matter” (UH Downtown), Harbinger Asylum,  Texas Poetry Calendar, Isotropic Fiction Magazine, the Canadian Broadcasting Company's Outfront Radio series and among many others.  David’s short story  “Goth Thing,” appeared in the award winning series, Exotic Gothic 5, Volume 1 published by PS Publishing. Other short stories have appeared in various journals including Haunted Traveler, Peripheal Distortions, The Dead Walk Anthology. Non-fiction articles and essays have appeared in CineAction (Canada's leading film magazine), ThisIBelieve.org's "On Motherhood", The Encyclopedia of the Zombie: The Walking Dead in Popular Culture and Myth and other journals. David has been named the Editor of the 2016 Horror Writer's Association's Horror Poetry Showcase. David is the president and a lifetime member of the Gulf Coast Poets Chapter of the Poetry Society of Texas. David’s newest book, “The Seven Yards of Sorrow” (Weasel Press) will be released this September 2016.
 
My next interview will be with author, John Palisano, and then I, myself will then speak to these questions as well as both a judge of the showcase, and writer/editor of poetry.