[Dozens more interviews available in the main Interview Archive]
Andrew Lundwall interviews John Edward Lawson for Tin Lustre Mobile, 11/03
1. john, tell the TLM audience a bit about the history of your magazine
the dream people… what do you feel has changed about the e-zine? and
what do you feel has remained the same?
Well, the magazine was started by the founder of Eraserhead Press, Carlton Mellick III (who also put out The Cranky Dildo and Earwig Flesh Factory). It was originally intended to provide a voice on the Internet for real fringe literature on a quarterly basis. After a year it started undergoing some changes, due to the increased output of EHP, mostly chapbooks at that point. When he made the switch to putting out trade paperbacks there was a guest editor system but eventually that fell apart.
For a while the zine was dead, and then I contacted CM3 about potentially helping out with EHP in some way. This was November of 2001. By February Jennifer Barnes and I had the first new issue online, built from the ground up since the old site had expired. Right from the very beginning we had the interest of wonderful talents who usually have trouble finding homes for their work, generally because it’s too “weird”. I’m glad we can offer this alternative for readers and writers. There have been changes in format and frequency, sure, but overall we’re still doing the same thing: bringing the most unusual work to the fore, while occasionally doing bizarre genre issues (horror, fantasy, scifi) just for kicks.
The goal—for us anyway—was to create a haven for unusual artwork,poetry, and fiction regardless of “genre” so long as the material in question contained some fringe element. TDP was to be the catchall for what other editors would consider unpublishable work from all fields. I like to think that we’ve succeeded…although, due to time and financial restraints we’ve had to turn away good work at certain points, because we were getting overloaded.
Eventually we started doing chapbooks, as you know. There’s just too much talent out there. It’s like sticking your finger in a dam…there’s no way to cover it all with a zine, chapbooks, or even a publishing company. But we’re trying. EHP continues to put out new books, and now Jen and I are also doing trade paperbacks as Raw Dog Screaming Press. Due to the increased workload, we’ve stepped back from TDP and are letting Gary West, our reviews editor, handle the December/January issue this time around. And he’s doing a great job of it.
2. what sort of ingredients do you think must be available when reading
a poem… when writing a poem?
A poem is an unusual creature. It often requires understanding and energy–just like any other animal, or divine being. It’s both the alter and the ego. T.S. Elliot said that poetry is the lack of emotion, just straight observation; I disagree. The didactic nature of life prevents our creations from being any one thing entirely, but poetry—like all art, in my opinion—is the manifestation of the subconscious to varying degrees, depending on the creator’s amount of restraint. Clinic detachment can be applied later to decipher elements of the overall message, but to fully read (or write) a poem you have to allow yourself to experience it, that is, open yourself to the condensed emotion that is the poem. We rarely allow ourselves to do this when interacting with each other, but perhaps it’s a safe exercise when we’re talking about the written word.
So, poetry is the Id/Libido bursting through and forcing the Ego to interpret it. That can take a lot out of you. For this reason it seems that poetry is best received in short doses, such as the literary journals and poetry chapbooks. As for the creation of poetry, well, I for one need some time to recover after great outpourings of work. Of course, my “great outpouring” might be another writer’s trickle, or maybe a deluge, I don’t know. At the same time, the emotional energy invested in poems create a self perpetuating cycle, energizing the author and reader—there’s give and take going on.
For me, the most energizing work provides a new look at human experience/reality, and that’s why the fringe is the most rewarding. To be frank, I am a student of those I’ve published. Before becoming an editor I had no idea there was such a vibrant poetry “underground” out there, and simply reading the work coming in to TDP inspired me to take up poetry as serious extension of my writing. For about a decade I’d been writing lyrics for the music I was involved in, with stronger and stronger poetic leanings, but it was nowhere near as engaging as actual poetry. Although, I suppose, it was good practice.
3. john, in regard to your writing….. what do you feel drives you to
write the sort of material you write?
I’ve always been most inspired by that I despise, which isn’t to say that I shun writing about the things I enjoy, it’s just that I’m not interested in sitting around complaining and doing nothing about “the problem.” When you look at dead civilizations, the only way to define them is through what can be ascertained of their culture. Culture is just a word for all that the civilization created, which aside from their language means art in all its forms. So, if art defines us as a people—from song to fashion, masonry to writing—what does it say to have vapid consumerism dominating our communications, our diversions, our lingo.
Stephanie Simpson-Woods said of my chapbook The Scars are Complimentary, “Most of the poems seemed to revolve around how disgustingly greedy and selfish the world we live in is.” Although my work almost never deals directly with fascist culture, I think her assessment of my work is dead-on accurate. As animals we have only our senses to rely on. The senses of sight, touch, sound, etc., can be misleading, in that we can only physically comprehend what is going on directly around us, therefore we seem to be at the center of all action. If all action revolves around us, well then, we must be damned important. Consumer culture simply latches onto this natural tendency and pushes it into hyper drive. This makes perspective the most compelling element of writing, for me, going back to when I was just doing screenplays or fiction. As stated earlier, I think poetry is instinctual emotion with our conscious filters removed, and for me I’ve made a concerted effort to remove as many of society’s filters as I can. So a lot of the work turns out, I guess, like a punch in the gut for some folks. A lot of stuff I considered a bit lighthearted, people come back and tell me it was brutal or saddening. I often forget that I’m thinking it’s lighthearted by comparison to other, more dreadful work I’ve writing.
4. i’ve noticed your poetry is very dark… why is this? now this is just
my own impression (or maybe not), but i’ve also noticed that there’s a
very deep eroticism embedded throughout work…. explain…
Darkness…my own life experiences were fairly grim as I grew up, so it seems I got a head start on perceiving the messed things in the world. Funny, I didn’t realize it at the time. Intellectually, though, those were the “good old days.” Despite—or, perhaps *to spite*—my perceptions, I grew up being exceptionally idiotic about things. Again, didactic; my contention is that human nature is counterintuitive. I was struggling to insist that everything was just the opposite of what I observed going on. Late in my teen years I was heading for a nervous breakdown so I had to stop and say, look John…work this shit out. Took many years of work to figure out what, precisely, “this shit” was, and I’m still working on rebuilding myself, but I’m about 95% a completely different person now. I know that dark aptly describes how the work can feel, but I think it comes from shedding light on things. Shed the light, get darkness. Often, I liken my writing to tiring of the stench in your home and lifting up the carpet to observe the rotting corpse beneath.
Sexuality: I think that’s disturbingly perceptive, Andrew. I hadn’t even caught that in my poetry, but after going back and reading it with new eyes I can admit that most (not just “some” as I’d previously imagined) is imbued with strong sexual under(over?)tones. Reading it, I said to myself, “Hot damn, this guy’s a freakbaby!” To wit, almost every reference to babies/children is negative in the extreme, suggesting a grim opinion of reproduction. All you have to do is look at the very first poem in my chapbook even! My word, “unctuous grinding” can be interpreted in numerous ways’ then there’s “gleaming inside her wet pain” and “milk scrumptious piercings/like broken naked babies”…not to mention the hers and his nature of the stanzas. That poem, incidentally, was composed using refrigerator magnets. Regardless, Why would a person look at magnets and come up with…that?!
After some analysis, I can admit that not only am I compelled by perspective and the desire to change our culture, but there usually needs to be some deranged sexual element to maintain my interest in the work. I think this suggests some deep rooted problems with human sexuality, especially in regards to reproduction. I think it’s more than my simply misanthropy at work, too. Of the various significant disturbances in my childhood, one cluster of problems involved the three younger siblings that died as babies. One was even tortured to death—inadvertantly (purportedly)—by doctors. It’s a long and interesting story, but to sum things up, I’d have to say that there’s a long-standing association, in my mind, between sex and death. That is, sex taken through to it’s ultimate conclusion, reproduction, inevitably leading to incredible suffering and loss for everyone involved. It goes without saying that such is the case with every life form, but usually there’s the whole natural life cycle between birth and death, know what I mean?
I noticed that one of the poems in my collection (“Motivational Balm”) states “the world is a razor/raped oyster waiting to bleed/into my mouth” while another, that makes numerous childhood references, also mentions razors (“That Last Autumn Spent Down a Hole”). What’s the deal with razors? I think there’s an unconscious association with the act of penetrating flesh with blades and, well, sex. I can’t believe I just said that, and imagine myself popularity will plummet once that gets out, but there it is. Ugh. Hey, I’m trying to be honest here. Other suspect poems mention “tempted by the darkness/of another” followed by “that laugh you wish/you could stab”, “T(M)J Hooker scores/Another John bored (through)”, and there’s the whole “Immorality of Immortality” poem. The list goes on and on. My most recent poetry publication was “Nerf Sex Doll” in Cthulhu Sex Tentacles Magazine, which is already saying a mouthful, but add to that the fact that one of the Nerf sex doll’s features is a rip-away arm that returns when you throw it.
In my fiction I write at length about feminist issues and inequalities within our social structure, but then let’s consider what you and I have discovered about my poems. Again the didactic nature/counterintuitive thing comes to the fore. The struggle of the subconscious versus the conscious. Poetry as the ultimate concentration of emotion, as opposed to clinical detatchment—and if old T.S. doesn’t like it, he can come back fro the grave to do battle. I think readers would pay a pretty (ugly?) penny to see contemporaries rolling about with the corpse of a great writer.
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