I sometimes wonder if physical suffering, mental illness or being slightly bent in the head is more prevalent among poets than most of the population. I wonder if one or more of these characteristics don’t actually foster innovation. I have noticed that some of these souls write poetry with such abandon, quantity and quality it sometimes makes me wish I was compulsive “in that way”. Every art form has its wounded, brilliant practitioners. But it seems to me that “creation” springs more abundantly, and often more beautifully from those who suffer mental, physical and spiritual hurdles. The poet, Spiel seems to be such a poet. He made the transition from visual art to word art just eight years ago. It is quite evident that in poetry he has found a medium big enough for his ideas, his anger and his sorrow.
In a recent interview with Tom Conroy of The League of Laboring Poets Spiel describes himself as “a perilously crusty provocateur who steps on cracks to break the backs of sacred cows.” And one aspect of Spiel is indeed as provocateur – a role he seems to enjoy. Again from the Conroy interview, Spiel says, “And for all of those who believe I read (or write) for shock, well,…there is an imperative sensibility to much of what I build in my pieces; its intent is to plant deeply what I hope to inform: this is what I believe is mistaken by some as the shock factor.” But when Spiel is shocking it is not just for its own sake, but because it is catharsis for him and for those whose silence he gives words to. Spiel’s audience will not be mainstream, but he doesn’t care. As he says in the interview, “I can’t say that I intentionally write for a particular audience. But I’m certain my audience is limited somewhat by my language: i.e., those who abhor the word fuck, for example. Those who hold their sacred cows above reason.” There are very few poets who write about personal horror and pain; and even fewer who do it well. Spiel willingly puts his head into the black hole of his past, and then writes about it. In a small press populated with fascinating personalities, Spiel was one I wanted to know better. He graciously agreed to lay it on me.
CPR: What is your real name?
SPIEL: My real name is the name I allow you to know me by. My real name is my enormous bank of artistic invention during more than sixty-six years in this declining body–my real name in the “making pictures” poem in my chap “it breathes on its own” which speaks of an extensive series of casein paintings done in the early 60s: children–without faces…”without mouths / to speak / to tell of all their needs / to tell their stories / where they’d been / why they stood before the houses / without doors / without windows / ”
CPR: For having started writing poetry just eight years ago, your work is very developed. Can you tell me about your publication credits?
SPIEL: Look…I’ve got a serious issue with this sort of question. Must poetry fall into the category of a race? Like a 100K run? I wig out when poetry is thought of quantitatively. I could flash you good numbers. But it’s the relative value of each of those publications that matters.
CPR: I agree that at a certain level of quality (and persistence) it is not hard to amass lots of writing credits, but a body of work is exactly that, and I want to know about your body of work. I see your poetry all over the small press. So getting placed must matter to you. Let’s keep it simple. How many books have you published?
SPIEL: You’re not hearing me, man. I’m taking this opportunity to say I don’t dig it when writers start throwing their numbers around. Thanks to Kinkos, just about anyone can publish dozens of chaps that’d make for a real hotshit bio. What difference does it make that, in fact, I’ve published a dozen? I’d hope we’re not talking Wal-Mart versus Target when we talk poetry. Yeah, if I were just writing this stuff for myself, I’d put it down in soft pencil on toilet paper, then flush it; so for me, chapbooks actually do serve a purpose; a sort of archiving. And they do have a certain degree of staying power. But to achieve just ONE really meaningful chap in a lifetime…ahhh, now that might be a worthwhile aim–when in truth, for the dedicated poet, it’s difficult to achieve that with just one truly great poem.
CPR: In the latest issue of Blind Man’s Rainbow, its editor, Melody Sherosky says about your recent book of poetry, “come here cowboy: poems of war“: “…these poems reinforce my own feelings that he is one of the best independent press poets currently producing new work.” That’s pretty high praise from a very astute reader of poetry. Tell me about your training as a writer?
SPIEL: Until ’96 when I became deathly ill, I’d spent my first fifty-five years as a visual artist; from there, three years of reticence–not at all resilient about recognizing I had not died. Since spring of ’99, I’ve been re-inventing myself as a writer. I took a couple of lit classes in university over forty years ago but all I remember is a knockdown with an obsessive old professor, an Englishman, who wouldn’t allow me to write “pregnant silence.” I dropped college twice. Did not understand that the psych disorders which’ve messed with my life were probably the reason I was unable to handle the disciplines of education. My “writing training” is in the daily doing of it.
CPR: Tell me about your process. Do you rewrite extensively?
SPIEL: It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say writing is all I do–typically putting in a solid 60 hours weekly at the keys. As for process, more often than not comprehensive–rare is the poem which just falls how I want it published. My studio has stretched onto the kitchen table, into my car, next to my bed (writing by feel in total darkness), the TV, any place I can grab a scrap of paper to jot the flash of a moment. Then, from those scraps, I begin development on screen where the piece may go through several lives. First print-out is then hand-writ into my “archive/journal” where, in ink, I may recognize new issues I want to work over. So, it’s back to the computer…
CPR: In your book, “it breathes on its own” your art braids itself into and around the poems. On one level this creates a union of visual art and reading, but I sometimes found the art made it difficult to read the poems. For example in the poems “andy” and “lye” the font size made it hard to actually read the work.
SPIEL:This is evidence the painter in me did not fully die when I “died” in ’96. “andy” and “lye” reveal dark secrets which were agonizing to access; so I present them as a guarded secret you must ache your ear to hear…”/ pleeze daddy / the arm for her shot / that’s the arm / when she scrubs me with lye / and won’t let me go /”. The visual encounter you speak of is not incidental to the words. It’s a piece of each word. Each of my chaps is a new experience. In my “church floor,” pages of those oblique poems appear to have been writ in different languages, then ripped apart, then pasted together again–not unlike the chaotic process of my mind. I want you to experience it with me, be dragged into it, troubled: “/sleep thought out / but ne’er possessed / as nightly suicides / by rubber daggers”. Good grief, man, this is the revelation of the Grim Fairy Tale of my real life; and decidedly the most challenging of my collections.
CPR: In “making picture without words” you say, “& at that time I changed my name / to hide my blackened tongue / so blackened then / by griefs of secrets hidden there / behind my face / without a place to speak”. Many of your poems are dark and filled with sadness.
SPIEL: True. So true. The absolute recognition of the effect of generations of psych-illness preceding me–then in me–my past inability to touch my fundamental base: the frightened precociously creative homosexual child given to manic depression, born at the outset of WWII to common white farmers in a small out-west town, my mother’s blood the pathway to a madness it would take these sixty-six years to lead to this earthquake of the psyche–and in this watered-down culture: locally, globally.
CPR: You often weave this darkness and suffering in your themes with a musicality; you use repetition of words to deepen meaning, through sound.
For example in “knots & ribbons” you repeat the words nipples and ribbons a number of times. This musical aspect of your writing works to great effect in your wonderful poem, “chair”. It’s brilliant.
SPIEL: Thanks. You got it right about the music. Nothing is finished until the music is there. “knots & ribbons” is a true story of an acquaintance whose husband ritually abused her, then hanged himself to be discovered in front of her child’s bedroom door. Odd isn’t it, the music of words came to relate this hideous story–perhaps make it palpable. “chair” is a rare piece which fell into place first stroke. “I wish you” poems are a kick to write but they’re a challenge cuz they can easy end up as crap. Recording “chair” for my new album–mmm, the sexiest! Those words are so intimate, dude, and doing it live with a mike against my lips proved their worth.
CPR: In some of your poems you relate incidents very graphically, in some cases the language boarders on lurid and/or pornographic in tone –
SPIEL: Well, Charles, your choice of words may say more about you than about my intent. Any number of pieces in my books might be interpreted as graphic “this” or “that”–all in the mind’s eye, isn’t it. An old friend interprets my incest piece as a beautiful revelation of flesh between mother and child. For me, it’s one of my most horrifying poems. I’m an adventurous writer who takes the stance that there’re no limits to what good poetry can be about, nor how it can be expressed. I tackle all sacred cows with the same gusto–they fall under the same category: the beastiness of humankind. I dig beneath that hirsute surface, little old churchy ladies included, to write about why people suffer so, why they treat each other the way they do, why…”/ it’s a good thing / to die / at least once / in a lifetime / unearth a new baseline / with your head bent / the way your neck / was set to turn //”
CPR: In some of your poems, you seem comfortable using what you’ve called street words (in your Laboring Poets interview). I read poets who think using the “F-bomb” somehow elevates the visceral quality of their work when it actually diminishes it, distracts from it. Don’t you think you stand the same risk in using fuck or other street words in your poetry?
SPIEL: I wonder if you recognize the depth of passion beneath my drive to keep all channels open for a language which is unrestrained–and to stave off those who would attempt limitations on it because it offends their sense of right and wrong. As a gay child in the 40s, then into the 50s, I was called every name you’d care to imagine, but I weathered those tags and I’ve come out the stronger man for it: whatever I was tagged was what those creeps believed and had they called me something more “correct,” their hatred would not have been any less poisonous. Good art, historically, resonates the times in which it is made. Given that the fuck word is plentifully used today, then there should be a solid reflection of its usage in the poetry of today. The most significant of the Beat Poets were not the product of decorum and protocol when they turned the lit world upside down. Throughout history, the mind of the enduring artist/explorer has never been driven by protocol, nor decorum.
CPR: The liner note from one of your books says, “Without your ear, I have no voice.” Surely you know that some of your language may be hard for many ears to hear.
SPIEL: Again…I see poetry as advocacy. I speak out for the disadvantaged and against those thugs who are inappropriately advantaged. I may be an acquired taste–perhaps to my disadvantage. But for those who want “easy to hear,” let them eat Maya Angelou’s Hallmark collection for which she was rewarded gazillions.
CPR: I love many of your poems: “deceit” “revelation” “marilyn” “closed open” and “touch”. You write soft lyrical poems and head bangers equally well. I found this a surprising aspect of you and your writing. It suggests to me that anger, yearning and sadness sit side by side in your writer’s mind. Does one style call to you more strongly the other?
SPIEL: I have no need, no sense, for “style” when I begin to write. Every piece is Spielspeak to me. Why you draw style lines is weird to me. “closed” was a rare “blind poem” where I sat at the keyboard, then let my fingers fly–“automatic writing.” When finished, I removed one unruly word, then shaped the piece. About “marilyn,” an established feminist poet sent an email saying, “the last lines are some of the most original & poignant words ever written about (marilyn).” “/ aloof / wanting / already contemplating / the abandon / of / what men desire / wanting out //” When I wrote that poem, I recall thinking it was about me.
CPR: What is your greatest joy?
SPIEL: Birthing words which work.
Spiel writes with great range and passion. So much so that it is easy to hear and remember only his loudest shouts – those poems in which he pounds the door and cries out for the injustice, the inequality and sorrow of this life. But flip these poems over and you find a poet equally equipped to write soft, spare, musical poems filled with sentiment and yearning. None of us can remove ourselves from the themes of our writing. Each line and stanza says something about us and perhaps, as Spiel suggests, offers a mirror up for others to see themselves more clearly. Spiel holds his mirror with uncommon intensity. He can be loud and shrill, but he can also be soft, silent, beauty. He’s a mind bender for sure.
About the author:
Charles P. Ries lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His narrative poems, short stories, interviews and poetry reviews have appeared in over one hundred and sixty print and electronic publications. He has received four Pushcart Prize nominations for his writing, and most recently read his poetry on National Public Radio’s Theme and Variations, a program that is broadcast over seventy NPR affiliates. He is the author of THE FATHERS WE FIND, a novel based on memory. Ries is also the author of five books of poetry — the most recent entitled, The Last Time which was released by The Moon Press in Tucson, Arizona. He is the poetry editor for Word Riot (www.wordriot.org), Pass Port Journal(www.passportjournal.org) and ESC! (www.escmagazine.com). He is on the board of the Woodland Pattern Bookstore (www.woodlandpattern.org) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Most recently he has been appointed to the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. You may find additional samples of his work by going to: http://www.literati.net/Ries/