When I entered the half empty Seattle café to meet Ānanda Selah Ösel I had a pretty fixed image of what he might be like from reading his poems. I expected a cynical chauvinist with an ugly attitude that just happened to write great poetry. It’s no wonder I expected this; most of Ānanda’s poetry centers on his life, and well, it’s not exactly something you would take home for old grandma to read. I was first exposed to Ösel’s work when I picked up A SonofaBitch, a small chapbook he published in 2007. After reading and enjoying his poems I decided to dig up some more of his poetry online and contact him. So, as it turns out I was right and wrong about Ösel. When I walked in Ānanda was sitting alone and wearing old jeans, a t-shirt and a New York Yankees baseball cap. He was much bigger than I expected, big shoulders, sort of jock like with a side of unkempt and a hit of madness.
Ānanda Ösel is one of many underground poets that have been thriving in the fairly new world of online publishing and that’s what makes him interesting. His words and observations about everyday life stand out in his poetry because they are both reckless and precise, not to mention overly simple. However, you’ll find that the simplicity that Ösel puts in his poetry goes largely unnoticed by the masses. Another thing you might notice if you ever happen to bump into Ösel on the street is that he seems very aloof. I got the distinct feeling that he knew more than he was letting on and there was something very strange about him that I couldn’t place; but when I asked him if he knew something I didn’t, he blandly told me “I know nothing; it’s just your imagination.”
After reading some of your work I sort of expected you to look different; and now that I’ve met you I have to admit that I’m surprised. You don’t exactly look or act like the poet type. Has that hindered your success in the poetry circles?
I have no idea, I’m not involved in that circle, nor do I want to be. In the past the typical poets wore berets, flowing scarves, did tons of readings, and maybe lived in Paris. Now it’s harder to pick the artists out of a crowd. Most, at least most that I’ve met, are just as pretentious as they ever were; they just blend in better now, which is actually a shame because now you don’t know who you should be avoiding. Of course, now there are what we call “spoken word poets” or “slam poets” and they stand out a bit more because they have theatrical personalities. These types are an interesting breed, I’m not sure what to make of them, and although I like some of the spoken word stuff, I find most of it uninteresting.
Could you tell me a little about your background?
I’d rather not so I’ll keep it short. I am originally from Portland, Oregon but I also spent some time in Phoenix as a kid. I was raised by both my loosely Christian, working class parents but my father was emotionally absent and neglectful, among other things. My mom picked up his slack and did a first-rate job for my brothers and me, which trust me, was not easy.
So, what lead you to write poetry in the first place? Do you have that driving urge to write that so many authors talk about?
No, I certainly have no driving urge. My story is very unromantic but I’ll share it since you asked. I am dating this woman who in the past seriously dated a “spoken word artist.” Everyone made quite a big deal about this fellow; almost as much as the narcissist made of himself. Anyway, I was naturally a bit jealous; I thought that if this moron wrote and preformed stuff people liked, I could do the same. So that’s it really. I started writing poetry because I thought some other guy was an asshole, and I thought he wrote shallow poesy. Now, I keep on writing because I like to create and I don’t have any other talent that pays well, and the other guy is still a halfwit poet, which is fine with me.
I’ve read quite a bit of your work. It seems that you don’t have much hope for humanity?
That might be true. I don’t know. I have hope for us as functioning organisms, but not as objects of truth and peace. I think that every man has the right to live. Murders, rapists, preachers, whoever, they all have a right to breath in and out. I just don’t believe that the good or the bad in life has much objective meaning. What deep meaning is involved when a spider kills a fly? There is not much meaning there. The spider must eat to live; he’s a living organism and he’s evolved to do this and that and so he does it. I look at humanity much the same way and I guess that comes out in my writing. I only try to do what makes me happy because I know I’m going to die sooner or later. If that means I act at someone else’s expense then that’s the way it goes. I’m not trying to sound amoralistic. I use the tools of utilitarianism just like anyone else but I don’t subscribe to the superiority of humanity and that feeling is the little bit of whatever that you’ll probably feel when you read my poems.
So would you agree if I called you a nihilist?
I would resist that label but I suppose that it is accurate given the meaning of the word itself. I’ve been afflicted with apathy and I look at much of the world through the lens of apathy, and I think I am consistent with that in my writing. But, there are many things I consider myself to be that also influence me, most of them are not so obvious. I am an atheist. I’m addicted to reading in the bathtub. I dislike brown rice. Everything about you influences how and what you write.
You write short free verse almost exclusively, why have you gravitated towards this style?
It’s easier. I can write Villanelles, Pantoums, or Tankas, and I have, but for the most part I choose not to because that’s not how my thoughts come out. It would be somewhat dishonest if I wrote in Haiku because I don’t like the haiku, I don’t think in the haiku, or speak in the haiku. If you don’t write what comes to mind naturally then the ship starts to sink. As far as length goes I like poems short because my attention span is short. My generation is the instant gratification generation. Who has time or patience to read a two-hundred line poem? Not me, and even if I did I wouldn’t. I don’t like poetry that much.
One of my favorite poems of yours is called The Way It Is. What was going through your mind when you wrote that?
I can’t remember, probably nothing. Writing poems is not like that for me. I don’t have some deep idea to communicate to my non-existent readers. I don’t care about changing anything with my poems. I just sit down and type whatever comes into my head. It’s just words on a page. I don’t take myself seriously. When you over-concern yourself with the seriousness of this or that, your mind becomes soft and it oozes out of you. If you do that when you write your poetry the words will be lost among all your posturing and self importance.
Who are your major poetic influences?
My major influence is my own life. I try to let my own experiences influence my writing and so my poetry is almost exclusively autobiographical. I end up writing a lot about everyday experiences of the mundane. I enjoy writing about sex, women, childhood, other people’s stupidity, my own stuff like that. As far as the dead go I like the major Chinese and Persian poets. I’ve also been influenced by Jeffers, Bukowski, Kafka, Céline, Nietzsche, Sartre, Maslow and the like. When it comes to contemporary writers I enjoy writers like Tony O’Neill, David Labounty, Suchoon Mo, Rob Plath, and Taha Ali among others. Folk music and the blues have also inspired some of my best poems.
How would you describe your failures and successes as a writer? What is your ultimate goal as far as poetry goes?
I don’t have an ultimate goal, I am not ambitious. As far as what I’ve had published so far and the reception it’s received I’d have to say that I have mixed feelings. I try not to write to seriously and so when I get rejected, which is more often than not, it’s not so painful. If I write something that I feel is worthwhile, whether it’s published or not, I feel that it’s a success. That worthwhile poem comes with a price though, the price of wasted time. I have to write ten mediocre poems to get just one exceptional poem. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Writing a good poem takes time.
You publish an online magazine called The CommonLine Project, can you tell us a little about that?
In 2007 I started publishing The CommonLine Project. It’s more of a glorified blog really. I’m not sure what lead me to start the magazine but my motives are irrelevant. I actually started a site called “The Apocalyptic” first. Then I merged that site with an idea that Vanessa Wilken, an artist friend of mine, had for a site that catered to the common person. So for fifteen months that’s what we’ve been trying to do with the project. I don’t know if we’ve been successful or not, but I’ve enjoyed it.
What is the strangest submission you’ve ever received?
I can’t say. We receive about 50 submissions per week. The strangest ones always come from the south. For some reason, they always send pictures of themselves with there submission and it’s usually some bizarre photo, like one of them flexing or something. I actually enjoy the photos through.
Within the last few years there have been hundreds online magazines that have come on to the scene. What do you think of them? Do you think they help or hinder the average poet?
They definitely help the average poet but I’m not sure they help poetry itself. Basically, the more sites you have publishing the higher the chance is that bad poetry slips though the cracks. There are quality sites out there that publish great work.Zygote In My Coffee, Word Riot, and 3am are all first class magazines. If the rest of the zine world could raise the standard of the poetry they publish things would be all the better. The Problem is that the publishing world cannot raise the standard because the talent is not there. Everyone thinks they have what it takes but very few do. I would include myself in that as well. Like I said, I have to write ten nothings to get one something. I just try not to publish the nothings.
I watched you at a reading once. You seemed visibly annoyed by the audience and the poet that read before you. What happened there?
Well, it’s a short story. The guy who read before me was dreadful, I mean really awful, but the audience loved it, or they pretended to, and it fed into his bravado. The crowed is rarely interested in the truth. They are always interested in the stupidest thing possible. They pretend to be intellectuals when they really are not, and that’s why they’ll clap for anything. Most everyone you meet on the street is an imbecile and they infect everyone around them with there imbecilic ways. Anyway, that’s why I was angry. I didn’t want to read my shit to a bunch of fakes. I could have read them the back of a cereal box and they would have given me a standing ovation.
I take it you won’t be reading anytime soon?
I’m willing to read but it’s not my favorite thing to do. I don’t read very well. I learned very late in life. I also stutter badly and so the reading out loud thing has never been my thing.
Is there anything you’re working on right now?
Yeah, I’m working on a collection of poems called The Meter Is Running & We’re Almost Out of Change. It should be ready for publication by mid year. I also have some poems coming out in The League of Laboring Poets and the Mid American in the next few months. I would encourage you not to read them.
You can contact Ānanda Selah Ösel through his website at www.ananda-osel.com
If you’d like to visit the CommonLine Project do so at http://common-line.com
Additional sections from this interview can be found at Unlikely 2.0.
About the author:
Ali N. Marcus is a singer song writer and an aspiring journalist and poet. She is an east coast native but lives in Seattle, Washington.