Thursday, June 29, 2017

Dustin Pickering responds

Dustin Pickering: I am a poet, editor, artist, and reviewer living in Houston, Texas. I am both brave and outspoken, and consider speaking out to be a poet's priority. I am a subtle sort of patriot, believing the United States is a cauldron of forgotten voices who were not easily intimidated by group hostility. I anticipate the day when my words resonate with others, especially those without a poetic voice. I have dealt with many traumas and currently live in poverty due to mental illness. Struggle, to me, is a positive sum tension.

DV: How did you ever get into writing? A teacher turned you on? A relative?

DP: My grandmother who raised me was a teacher's aid and owned many books. I wrote a story called "The Little Red Wagon" in first grade after she suggested I write about something I want. My family made sacrifices to buy me a computer when I was a child, and I quickly learned typing. I read Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats at 16 years old. I didn't like Yeats much at first. He seemed like an old person's poet. When my English teacher Mrs. Walls suggested I read Sylvia Plath, I was hooked on poetry. I made the bold decision to make it my life. Oddly, my grandmother hated Plath. Someone she knew committed suicide and she was obsessed with Plath. My grandmother said she idealized and romanticized suicide. I spent hours in Galveston's Rosenberg Library looking up poets, picking books off the shelf with interesting titles, and browsing the internet for things to research. I photocopied poems and created a binder of them. I copied Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan lyrics into a notebook I still have. I wrote 3 to 5 poems a day in class or at lunch. The ideas kept barging in on me.

DV: Ideas have a bad habit of doing that, don't they? When do you think you became a "real" poet, with a voice or style or point of view of our own?

DP: In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, bi-polar type. It is a complicated and unnerving illness. It has set me apart from other people, and it forced me out of college and into a hospital for a three month stay. I did not know I was ill at first. I thought the hallucinations were real and I acted on them. However, after the stay at Austin State Hospital for three months I came to terms with my illness, which still hounded me relentlessly. Several years later I was in group therapy with a guy whose experiences were the same as mine. That was the first tip that I had a clinical illness. During the time between those two incidents, voices demanded I read certain things. They demanded I write. I read Eugenio de Andrade's lyric poetry, but I practiced my own style of verse composition. When I was in a care home briefly, I stood outside and yelled his poetry to the empty air. One of the women staying with me told the caretaker I was shouting crazy things. I didn't understand my writing, but I still have two notebooks from that period. For some reason, they have a magical effect on me. Voices demanded I complete an entire notebook even if it was garble. I wrote while in the hospital and I think I have one prose writing from that period. My voices forced me to memorize a few Plath poems, and I started to memorize the Unabomber's manifesto at their behest. I remember my friend picking me up, and the voices had told me I was not entitled to a break. I took my break and the voices shifted. They told me everyone was going to hell if I didn't memorize this poem, or this writing. I actually heard the voices of Plath, Whitman, even Kurt Cobain and perhaps a few others. I really dug into poems at that point. I read "Leaves of Grass" twice. I memorized two Plath poems. Since then, I have memorized Shakespeare's Sonnet I, some Tennyson, and probably a handful of others. I did this when I severed the Achilles tendon of my right foot. I had a full leg cast and couldn't walk. I had just started "Harbinger Asylum" and had files to get from the computer. I only have internet access at the library. I walked in the cast to the library a few times to get the next "Harbinger Asylum" ready to go. Poetry has few, if any, rewards that most people count as worth such efforts. You will get the satisfaction of having created something new, embarked on ideas, and made concepts visual. Many scientists and statesmen/women are inspired by poetry, and find it a breath of inspiration. The average Joe probably thinks it's a waste of time, something pansies would do. It's never made me money, never helped me "hook-up" with a girl, and it certainly hasn't made me famous.

DV: Of course. some people obsess over celebrities or memorizing baseball stats. I have a good friend (Hi, Mike!) who can tell me the placement of any singer or band on the Billboard charts. I suspect that these preoccupations never made them any money or got them any dates, either, and they would be just as hard pressed to defend the utility of these activities. But it seems to me that poetry does connect people across time and geography. Much of the Bible, and not just the Psalms, is actually poetry. The Mongols used to sing their laws. Poetic literature is much older than prose literature  -- for a long time prose was strictly for humdrum, "useful," purposes such as business transactions, king lists, architectural inscriptions, and the like.  Many poets I know claim that their poetry is not entirely their own creation but something that somehow comes to them from elsewhere. So, welcome to the club!  You mentioned "Harbinger Asylum" -- can you clue us in about what that is, what it represents?

DP: "Harbinger Asylum" was born into the world in 2010. I and a friend are aspiring writers, but it suddenly dawned on me that many poets started from the ground up, DIY style. I decided to start a literary journal. I networked on Facebook, mostly with libertarian thinkers through various anarchist fan pages, and put together the first issue with Microsoft Word. The name "Harbinger Asylum" came to mean different things. Namely, it is a space for today's prophets to have a safe haven, i.e. asylum. The name was chosen randomly. My friend liked the word Harbinger, and I threw out Asylum on a whim. There the journal was born. The idea was to anthologize poetry that was cutting edge. Later, Transcendent Zero Press took up the publishing effort. TZPress is my press named after what was going to be a band. I named my punk band Transcendent Zero when I was in high school, but the band never happened. It was from the word transcendent in a dictionary, and the song "Zero" by Smashing Pumpkins which was popular then. Later it evolved to mean something that is beyond definition, an Other, something that paradoxically cancels itself. It's a self-evolving principle that contains the seeds of its own destruction -- and this immolation furthers the horizon of this principle. It's a dialectic that stands within equilibrium, that reaches out far past the destined horizon. Transcendent signifies an overcoming, while zero indicates an absolute that is absent. Symbolically, transcendent zero is an act of creation, an all encompassing act that defines being. 

DV: Are TZPress and "Harbinger Asylum" still in operation, or did they serve their purpose and disappear? 


DP: Both are still in operation. I recently purchased 100 ISBN's for TZPress because I plan to continue this for a long time. TZPress is a registered partnership. We pay self-employment taxes on the company, so it is an officially registered business with a tax ID.  I don't know how long "Harbinger Asylum" will last because the journal is expensive to keep afloat. We will at least have to reconsider our tactics of distribution. We have a print run each quarter and contributors get a free copy. On average, each quarter we spend 300 dollars to enrich poets across the world and introduce them to new people, help them network. I've had young poets ask me to write referral letters in case they apply for grants or scholarships, I've had academics tell me they needed to publish to move their career ahead and then offer an essay or poem, and I have had recognized poets like Heller Levinson submit and praise the journal. Many submissions come from poets who have been in "Poetry," work at Emory, or had something appear in the "Wall Street Journal." One of our anthologies, "Selfhodd: Varieties of Experience," made the bestselling list for new releases in poetry anthologies the first week it was released. It stayed there for a few weeks. It sold perhaps 50 copies. I strive to publish literary and strong, as well as appealing, poetry and literature. While I respect other types of poetry like slam, I can't publish it because it is too different from the written word. Houston has one of the best slam teams in the country and I had the opportunity to meet one of the key coaches, Outspoken Bean. People don't write to claim base or crass things. Some primal urge seethes in their veins, perhaps an elective boredom. Ennui. Writing is an intense mind job. My pen doesn't keep track of my mind usually-- it's a trained Olympic gold runner. If writing stimulates your feeling of achievement, and you simply cannot get enough of reading, enough of thinking, enough of suffering and idealizing the pit that is your life...you have the first step to being a writer. At least an existential writer. Stephen King is madly impulsive, so perhaps he can explain how writing keeps his aches in line. Nothing satisfies me more than emptying decadent words on empty concepts, twisting the whole process, scalding it up, laughing it off, rethinking my sanity. Funny story...last year was our first year to pay taxes on the venture, and by chance I whined to a friend in California. Her husband is an accountant, retired. The next day they had a planned dinner with a friend, one of the nation's top accountants. He was immensely kind and answered our questions. The process was simple and I had completed most of it before I talked to him. His advice was a godsend. He solved the craziness in less than a three minute phone call and knew the 1065 tax form in and out. Every catch, each section, what I should fill and what I shouldn't worry about. 

I'll be damned.

DV: Very ambitious. I congratulate ou on your success so far. You claim that writing is an intense mind job and that your pen is an Olympic runner. So, I wonder: On a typical day (whatever that means) how long do you spend writing poetry? How long does it take to bring a single poem to life? I suppose you give up on some poems, save others to take a future whack at, and regard others as "keepers." Do you have any idea of how they break down statistically?


DP: Not really. I follow the inclinations of the Pareto formula which states roughly 1 percent of any selection is above average. I don't write every day, but when I do in many ways it pours from me. I wait for passion, and a sudden involvement with language happens. Last night, for instance, a poem appeared to me: "I Cannot Forgive Your Hands." It's about the Christ myth and how it developed into a larger-than-life reality. I personally believe it was originally a mystery cult, perhaps with a real man leading it, but time has made this man God. The poem antagonizes the idea of having to die for someone else's sins. I have always taken offense to the idea that I should be expected to worship a man because he died for me when I in no way asked him to do it. Let's separate reality from myth. The language of the myth is literary and has many precedents in other cultures. I call it emotional blackmail when people put this tortured man in front of me and say, "He died for you, now you must accept this gift." The audacity of whatever God is behind this! I met some evangelicals on a bus to Austin years ago. One woman sat with me and asked about my beliefs. I shared my humanism and agnostic thoughts, but I knew where it was going so I tread lightly. Ah, she then said, "Now that you have talked with me about your beliefs, can I please discuss mine?" I was offended but what the hell. I was headed to a poetry festival and in a good mood. They were on their way to a religious retreat. She asked me if I met with God what would I tell him if I rejected his gift of the blood of Jesus? I thought Christianity ended animal sacrifice and ritual killing. We got into a real conversation soon when I explained I am schizophrenic and it causes me confusion about God-- I can't say yes or no. I don't prefer either way. She told me she had an autistic child and we both shared sympathy with one another. A case worker was on the bus with us and chimed in, "When I heard you talking about St. John of the Cross, I should have known you were schizophrenic. Every person with that illness I worked with loved him. Next you will tell me all your tortured experiences and self-mutilation. I don't want to hear it." I laughed and told him I was reading Immanual Kant also. The woman left and went back to her group. We all began discussing religion. One woman said she was a former Catholic but gave up trying to be a good person because that isn't what God wants. See, theology is tricky because no one knows what God wants but everyone thinks they know. Back to the poetry. I write a lot of poems and just let the mind care for it. Sometimes I write four or five at a time. I used to write three every morning. Most are sub-par. They say if everything you do is genius, you are mediocre. I whittle away at these works until I think they effectively express beauty. I haven't always written eloquently. I always felt I did, but many of my older poems are garble. The sentiments are profound, especially for a young man, but the structure and choice of words are off. I suffered a lot in high school. I had a strong affection in my latter years for a beautiful woman in my class. She didn't share them. We were good friends, but my obsession killed the friendship. My heart was broken and I started to experience some agonizing grief, memories of childhood traumas that I went back to my grandmother to ask about, and my personal feelings of inferiority. I went to the Homecoming Dance just to dance with this young woman. I gathered the courage to ask and she said, "We'll see." Then the entire group left for a party supposedly being thrown by the golden boy of our class at his house. She would never dance with me, even at prom, and all I wanted was to dance with her. I actually loved her. I obsessed over her for at least three years after graduation. I wrote poems for her, I daydreamed about her. Years later I mastered the obsession and fell for another girl. Now I am Facebook friends with my high school love. When we had Project Grad, they gave away gifts to all the students based on a drawing. The golden boy won the fancy convertible car. The guy's family had tons of money. I got a ten dollar gift card to a music store. No complaints. Music was my life. That guy also won the affection of the girl I loved...he now owns a production studio in Hollywood. I live in poverty, have no girlfriend, suffer from acute mental illness, and run a poetry journal. No one cares about poetry. This won't bring money, nothing. I can't help doing it, but I wish it offered something. I know of many poetry journals that fold because the literary community doesn't support them. The market is saturated with quality literary publications. People get published a lot. Many of those people don't buy the journals that publish them. I know this as editor and publisher. And the woman who helped me get over my high school love...it was the same serious heartbreak. She fell for a guy with a bigger dick. I gave her things and money to give to him. She was a kid -- much younger. She was my neighbor. I was the one who immediately perceived that most of the guys stopping by were only interested in sex or flirting. Her best friend was killed by a drunk driver and I couldn't help but try to fill that gap. She would come and go. She told me I saved her life. She was about to stab a knife into her heart when I barged in on her. I remember that, but I did not know she was about to kill herself. I gave her a hug while she was crying. I asked if she wanted private time. She nodded and I left. She's one of my closet friends now, and we are connected on Facebook. She came to one of our events last year after I invited her. I found out she was in Houston and asked her to come. She had fun. There's a magic between us. I told my grandmother that I didn't think I could love a person so deeply without being loved and appreciated back. She agreed. From time to time, during the show, we would glance at each other and share a smile. I think she's perfect. She's poetry to me. 

DV: I'm an old guy and have approximately gone through all your heartbreak many times over. The adolescent love of my life who had another boyfriend, our too-brief romantic fling later, our continued friendship. Various other relationships in which one of us felt more strongly than the other.  A long but ultimately unsuccessful marriage. Lots of frustration. But now I have a suitable mate, we are both happy with each other's idiosyncracies, it's all wonderful. It's hard to be detached from one's own emotional pain, but in the end it's all part of the human condition. Meanwhile, would it be possible to share "I Cannot Forgive Your Hands" with us?

DP:

You reached out to me while coaxing the lamb,
hands baby soft and trembling quietly,
then suffered lashes to prove your love.
Now I cannot see.
Blindness is consequence for my refusal.
Your lamp is brighter than the imaginary.
I have become dust in your hands.
Swollen nothingness.

I can’t believe in you.
Your humanness is devout and your smile echoes.
You sought to prove your love
by leaving me with your solemn corpse.
I carry it as I would the heaviest of burdens.

I cannot hate you—
you aren’t the one I fear most.
The thoughts within me are the lawless demagogues.
Far worse, by far, than the holy flame
of your kind eyes when you give bread to a child.
I cannot forgive, I will not forgive,
for I am too much like you.

You were Poet, most embarrassed of the sages,
man assumed as brilliant as the suns.
My impulses glower like those stars
and sink love’s instrumental emptiness
almost as if our shadows never mattered.
I will not live under your true face,
and dying is the last thing on my mind.

This riotous apathy curling in my skull…
because you hid me from life’s most engaging beauties…
and now the bruised earth is ripe with song,
but I am only the lightning and force of rain.
The living world would pass vainly with or without me.
Open my wounds yourself, Christ, and you will see my hope.
It wasn’t you.

When you let your blood drip to the trembling ground,
remember that blood was me,
it is in me and not yours to give.
I doubt that rage is a tomb
and I deny your rage shook the sky.

I don’t lie. Neither do my fears.
You are empty, Lord,
and I became the shadow of  windswept years.

DV: Very powerful. And vexing, as good poetry often is. I was particularly struck by the pairing of  "I am only the lightning and force of rain" with the unspoken text from John 8:12 (I am the light... he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness). But what did you have in mind when you wrote "you hid me from life's most engaging beauties"?


DP: Specifically, the love from a woman. I was estranged from my mother at age 2 by a long, difficult process. She was deemed an unfit mother by Mississippi courts. At the time, she was a liberal atheist on a vegan diet. I believe the courts found that strange. It was Mississippi after all. She was also in grief for her mother who was just killed by a drunk driver. The drunk is now dead. I was moved to my aunt and grandmother's house, my dad's side. I was estranged completely from my mother until I turned 30. Someone she knew found me on Facebook and my brother sent me a request. I had an inkling of who he was because I knew the name. He's good friends with Ziggy Marley and has hung out with Coleman Barks. I sent Barks my book "Salt and Sorrow." I think this broken bond, that was actually seen as evil by much of my family, and everything it represented, has been the stone blocking my ability to relate to women physically and to have truly intimate feelings toward a woman. I have always felt slighted in this respect and it is a cause for my rage and discontent. I cling to the notion that there is someone out there for me, but many people have died a virgin. Some were brilliant, others common. I had a librarian in high school who was much older -- in her later years-- who had never slept with a man. It's as if some divine power separated me from female love and never bothered to explain. My mother's mother had a strange dream before she died -- literally a couple of weeks before the crash. She was holding me and a dark mysterious force took me from her and she couldn't do anything about it. Strange, the similarities. I don't much believe in God because I simply cannot believe in something that doesn't believe in me. I am reading Jung's "Answer to Job" now, and he seems to indicate that humans are more reasonable than God. God is the lawgiver, but he breaks his own laws and he forced a covenant on the Hebrews that they sought to break. He seemed intent on demanding it, and it seems he still demands it. I also tired of streamlined evangelicals who tell me God loves me and I have to give in to him or go to hell. Look, if God gave me a mind he doesn't reserve the right to tell me how to use it. If I give someone a present, I don't demand they use it in ways I am comfortable with -- and if they choose not to, I destroy them. But the Biblical God seems to do just that. I think of all the mythology as human symbolism -- human relationships with the Unknown, its terrors, its demands. I don't know what God is. I don't think we can know. If he's an SJW [Social Justice Warrior], we are all in trouble. Ultimately the poem deals with my ambiguous emotions toward the Christ myth and the inexplicable fact that no matter how hard I try, I am never accepted by whatever woman I love. I joke that I have better luck with publishers than with women. I have been asked what I meant. I have asked several women out over the years, all rejections for different reasons. I don't know if I have anything to offer, but I am a very compassionate and gentle man. I have a friend who just left her second abusive relationship and she has two kids. I have loved her for 15 years. I send her money a lot while she looks for a job. I have probably given her at least 1000 dollars. I don't have much money. I never do. I tend to throw it to the winds once it comes my way. Put simply, "life's beauties" are the joys of romance, the wholeness of a reciprocated love, and the power struggle of sex which invigorates both male and female as they stimulate one another and share a union that makes the world whole for them both. I don't want to sleep around. It ruins the passion.


DV: Our lives have great resonances, my brother. We are, all, part of an interconnected whole, a tale filled with disappointment, rejection, injustice, indifference, misunderstanding, moral indecision ... self-affirmation, redemption.  In the wise words of Isaac Bashevis Singer, as channeled by Saul Bellow, "I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck.... I went to the rabbi to get some advice. He said, 'It is written, better to be a fool all your days than for one hour to be evil.' ... No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once removed from the true world. At the door of the hovel where I lie, there stands the plank on which the dead are taken away. The gravedigger Jew has his spade ready. The grave waits and the worms are hungry; the shrouds are prepared -- I carry them in my beggar's sack. Another shnorrer is waiting to inherit my bed of straw. When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception." But, in the meantime, life goes on! What are your artistic plans in the near future?


DP: TZPress is publishing a book by Lyn Coffin, and one by t. kilgore splake. We also have plans for a collection by elena botts. I am in hopes to have enough songs together for a CD soon. I will call it "Raskolnikov and Kryptonite." My book of flash wisdom called "A Matter of Degrees" was just released. It explores St. Augustine's just world theory and the existence of good and evil. It's actually a work on aesthetics. I have another book of poetry soon out called "Knows No End." It explores eternal truths and disappointment in not being able to reach them in the physical world. It is dedicated to the artist who inspired the concept, Vera Icon. We also have an event in Houston called the Shindig Bazaar in April. I host regular Shindigs with poetry and music, and decided to enlarge the event with people selling art and jewelry there. Lots of happening events in Houston. I don't know what else I am committed to at the moment, but my list grows.

DV: At least no one can accuse you of wallowing in self-pity! You are one busy dude! So I guess I should let you get back to your important work. I want to thank you very much for your time and candor and to wish you the best in all things.

DP: You are welcome. Thank you for including me. I spent all my free time in high school creating art and writing poetry, studying everything from Milton and Keats to Robert Burton and Anthony Burgess. Literature is a maze of symbolic personal perspectives. Cheers! (Please ask your readers to take a look at Faheela Hassan's collection "Lipstick." She earned the title of Iraq's Maya Angelou. She suffered persecution in Iraq and Turkey for being a female poet and teacher. She was popular in Iraq and there are many filmed appearances to prove it. This book is a literary testament to post-Iraq fears and serves as a protest and assertion of female will.)


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