The Interview — Rob Plath by Tom Merrill
RP: You’re welcome, Tom. Thank you, too, for the spiritual generosity in doing this interview. To go off what you mentioned about “the ledge,” first and foremost I think all of my poetry is just therapy for myself, and whatever comes second is a bonus. That is, others connecting to it, appreciating it, etc. I think the poems are “simple, straight talk to myself,” and it’s me trying, as you say, to “mitigate” my own suffering. Once shared, it becomes perhaps straight talk to others also suffering. I guess I try to write clearly enough for myself, and for others, too. And yes — Wolfgang is not only my editor but a dear friend and fellow poet and writer. I have a poem called “Great Poems Are Like 911 Calls” (which he quotes often when discussing what poetry is or should be), where I suggest that a great poem should be pared down and urgent. If you’re calling in an emergency, you wouldn’t be unclear or obscure, or use tricks or gimmicks; you’d try to use as few words as possible so help can be dispatched. Same goes for poetry in my eyes. In addition to that idea, many times I have this confusion about my pain, and writing helps me figure it out. Writing down also helps me extract it, at least temporarily. I once read a quote by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado where he said something like, if you’re really writing about the “deep you” then you inevitably reach the universal “I.” So whatever I’m writing, if it’s deep enough, from the core, others will relate to it even if it’s slightly different from their experience of pain. I also always joke that I want to be as frank or as clear as possible because I want my enemies to understand what I might be saying to them too, although they might never read it. It’s said in jest, but there is truth to it too.
And to address your comments on suicide, which is a very complicated subject, I think that from afar people might envy those who escape this painful life, but to me it needs to be seen as a kind of terrible mosaic. If you really get close enough to it, you see the pieces of devastation it leaves in its wake, the many shards of ugliness, the loneliness, regret, fear, etc. I also think about the people who, if they hadn’t been trapped in some dark pit, mute and unable to claw out, might’ve escaped back up to the light and persevered.
As for the movements, I’m not sure how I fit in those. I love The Brutalists. That’s a literary movement started over in the UK in the mid-2000s by Tony O’Neill, Adele Stipe, and Ben Myers. I think they might include Dan Fante in it too, even though he was older, but he was a big influence on them. He’s like the father of Brutalism. Speaking of Dan Fante, I kept a six-year correspondence with him, and he was just a great person and writer. He is one of my favorite novelists of all time. But the Brutalism movement was just raw, honest, Fuck You literature and poetry. I loved Adele’s kick-ass zine Straight from the Fridge. I’m proud to say I was in there a few times. I also did a reading with Tony once back in 2009 at the KGB Bar in NYC after my first large collection of poetry A Bellyful of Anarchy came out. It was a 300-page monster that Wolf published under epic rites press. It was a great night of anarchy and words at a legendary bar in the East Village. Blood poetry is something that I know more about personally. Wolfgang and I also talked for years about writing as blood or blood writing. There’s a great Nietzsche quote we both love where he says he loves writers who only write with their blood and that blood is spirit. Wolfgang promotes that kind of writing through his press and therefore you can see it as a type of movement.
Blood writing is just what it sounds like. Hitting a vein and splattering the page. One of my first chapbooks is called Squeezing Blood from the Alphabet published in UK by erbacce-press. And it’s just what it sounds like. Slashing open the ABCs and wringing out the red across the blank canvas . . .
TM: I think I wrote something at least once that worked as self-therapy. I remember crediting it for cutting any remaining thread of connection between me and an old source of misery. I remember it as serving as a sort of official death certificate. The death it recorded was my feeling’s. Its message was absolute and final: it would be a mistake to expect my further concern. I recall feeling relief after writing it, and I recall that the relief lasted.
As to poetry — or any kind of writing — “connecting” with others, I suppose it could be said to when it elicits a nod of understanding.
Suicides will always have my admiration, and indeed my esteem. It’s impossible to know their interior experience. No one can ever be privy to another’s inner self. Suicides are propelled over the brink by internal affairs known only to them. It can be assumed that they don’t find those affairs tolerable. People will pointlessly speculate about what made them do it. Just so much wasted breath. As it happens, those who expedite their fates act in accord with the advice of a scattering of thinkers through history who knew hardcore sadism and cruelty when they saw it, and who saw it everywhere. People quite blithely bring you into the world but seem decidedly disinclined to let you — even if begging for release — out easily. Many seem wired to force you to endure every last millisecond of misery. As a result, many are held captive against their will. It’s my impression that the taste for torture is rather widespread in the species, that many more people than supposed derive a secret thrill from torture scenes. Sadomasochism may be a bit more prevalent in human psychology than has been admitted. For whatever reason, at any rate, suicides have obviously had their fill of consciousness and sensation. They have decided that more must be avoided at any cost. My only wish for them is full achievement of their sought end. And my only wish for the species in general is that when it is extinguished, it will go down with no screams of agony. And, of course, never suffer any kind of sequel.
Brutalism I imagine is borrowed from the architectural movement that bears the same name. A sort of barebones style, complete with innards exposed sometimes, pipes and whatnot.
The first poem of yours I ever read was “wave them back to the womb.” It gives an account of life I can’t argue with. After putting maternity wards and morgues in the same imagined room, it goes on to expand the vision: “let the newborn / in their hot coats / of blood / scream into the frozen / mute morgue drawers / until the dead sit up / and wave them back / into the womb.” Is a philosophy of life being expressed in those words? Do you regard yourself as an antinatalist? Are you making a case for the unborn? Quite countercultural if so. That viewpoint will remain, until erased from history, as nothing more than another odd historical artifact left behind by somebody who had peculiar personal problems of one sort or another. Life is, of course, beautiful, as you know — not to mention a gift and a blessing.
abandoned psychiatric grounds
RP: What a first poem to read! Some might turn and run! A maternity ward / morgue mashup is enough for some or many to close the book or shut the computer off. It is a philosophy of life. Well, part of one. Walt Whitman said in his epic poem “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself. I am large and contain multitudes.” So I think the idea of waving the newborns back to their wombs is one of the ways I see life. I think in King Lear, Lear says, “When we are born we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.” I think that’s putting it lightly, too. Our start-up jacket for existence is hot blood, and we swing out on a purple bloody noose screaming — a reason to question birth and life and humans. I have dozens of poems where I say that I am “homesick for the stars” or wherever we were before. I think we are actually parts of the stars. According to NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller, we are made up of all the elements of a star when it finally exploded. The red blood in our veins is the iron from a dead star. But I often think that I was nothing really, Nada with a capital N, and that birth is a murderer of nothing in order to make something. “Something” being the terror and horror called a human life. I often think we should have stayed fire, stayed gas, stayed in the breakers of the Atlantic, in the rings of the oak, in the core of the mountains. Many don’t see the human body as a trap, an animated corpse, a strange suit of skin we lease from the worms. I am often horrified that I carry around a body. I have a poem from the same book, A Bellyful of Anarchy, as the poem you read first, called “i am my own pallbearer,” and it’s about feeling like I’m carrying my cadaver around all day. Lugging might be a better word than carrying. What is this hunk of blood and bones? I lost a new pair of winter gloves in Penn Station a few years ago, and I joked on the way back home on the train that somebody might’ve picked them up and adopted them. As they wear them, they begin to be aware of their organs, their lung bags, their blood circling their shape, their 206 bones, etc., and they are horrified to realize they are trapped with this blob held up by bones that thinks and thinks too much! Then they remove the gloves, and they are back to being oblivious again and well-adjusted, back to being a happy-go-lucky robot. That’s why I love my cat. She just pulses in her tiny frame, is comfortable in her musculature. I ask her, “Do you know that you will die one day?” And she just blinks three times and extends her pink padded paw in peace or she yawns. But me? I feel like I am slapping more and more maggots on me every day. Until I am covered and ride a surfboard of worms back to the stars. Is this ranting making sense? I hope so. But as Jack Kerouac says in On the Road, “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” Is life (the body) really a gift? Or just an overthinking slab of meat straitjacketed to a skeleton, which comes with a lease you signed (via birth) with the worms? I don’t know, but I do know that they are waiting with bibs on, rubbing their segments together . . .
TM: Well, for me it was more like Diogenes’ dream come true. It wasn’t the first time it had, Diogenes had got lucky before, but the other surprising encounters occurred elsewhere than the current poetry scene. My discovery of you afforded some pleasure, the same kind Schopenhauer said he felt whenever he stumbled across someone in the history of thought who shared his own outlook.
I wouldn’t be surprised if “wave them back to the womb” earned you persona non grata status in many circles, but at least you’d find yourself with some noted company out in the cold. I know you know that Sophocles would be out there with you, who in Oedipus at Colonus wrote “Not to be born at all / Is best / far best that can befall / Next best, when born, with least delay / To trace the backward way.” In fact, many of equal renown would also be out there with you. Maybe even — for a divinely inspired example — Jeremiah: “Do not marry and have sons and daughters in this place” — by which he may have had more in mind than exegetes are inclined to suppose. And yet, miraculum miraculorum, writers and thinkers whose views yours echo are still being read and taught, at least in some dusty corners of academe. In fact, some of those thinkers even knew renown during their lifetimes. But if they were alive now, would their view of life as an experience best avoided be granted a fair hearing? Possibly Sophocles would be playing to a much tougher house today. It doesn’t help that the newer religions aren’t yet embalmed in mythology. Could it be that a life-affirming attitude has become de rigueur nowadays? That the rage for happy faces betrays an increasing tendency to regard life as a cause for gratitude? An editor told me recently that I should smile, be happy, enjoy nature’s beauties, all life’s heavenly wonders. She was quite insistent about it. I suppose I might’ve responded with rows of happy face icons, but I’m afraid her rather brazen insistence on optimism and complacency triggered in me something somewhat less obliging, call it Newton’s equal and opposite reaction. (Add a pinch of contempt for good measure.)
People who naysay life always seem to trigger speculation about why they condemn it. Could, do you suppose, its cruelty be why they do? But no, it’s never simple ethics and thoughtfulness that accounts for it, it’s always some sort of personal disorder or misfortune. At any rate, the naysayers will be diagnosed, tagged with loaded terms, and duly filed away with other case studies.
In short, your ranting makes perfect sense to me, and your confusion has a refreshing clarity and rarity. The Syrian poet Al Ma’arri summed it up nicely in the epitaph he had inscribed on his tomb: “This crime against me was done by my father, but I have committed it against no one.”
The crime was everything that brought him to that end, to his “execution and reward,” as I have called it. The crime was the perennial perpetuation of life with all its torments and in all its futility and injustice. I think even Eliot in Prufrock understood this when he wrote “There will be time to murder and create . . .” — to me a rather telling conjunction. And maybe “There will be time . . .” can be read as a lament that everything is quite likely to continue as before, at least until something far more powerful than any dramatist or poet or philosopher brings the forced march to a halt.
And now, I shall leave the last word in our interview to you. It’s been a pleasure.
RP: Just so I don’t forget, I absolutely love Diogenes — the motherfucking dog! — and Oedipus plays (or, as I like to call him, Eddie) and the tower of a man, Sophocles, who put those amazingly dark words in his mouth. Thanks for the Al Ma’arri quote too — I’ll be looking into him more. In all the darkness, it’s always a blessing to read someone new with whom you connect. While I’m not as much of a fan of Eliot as I am of the others, I do love the line in Prufrock: “I should’ve been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas.” I often think that way myself, and then I think maybe it should be less than that even — I should’ve been the grit of an anthill, or the nerves of a sand flea, but that might not be down the ladder enough either. But are you ever really nothing after all? Perhaps the murky mud on the sea floor is best — the ooze. I used to have a recurring dream that I was this dusty can of soda in a dimly lit refrigerator in a Brooklyn deli after hours, but I could still think! What a horror! A lonesome can of soda that can think! I hope that as we descend the scale of things there is absolutely no consciousness in inanimate objects or in the hairlike limb of a daddy longlegs spider! And to return to my earlier gratitude, it is great, as you say, to meet people, like-souled people, like you Tom, or discover Schopenhauer or Sophocles so that we don’t feel so alone in our despair.
Now the final word? My mentor Allen Ginsberg said in his moving poem “Memory Gardens,” written after his friend Jack Kerouac died at 47, “While I’m here I’ll do the work. And what’s the work? To ease the pain of living. All else is drunken-dumb show.”
And I always liked that idea. I think that’s what I’ve been doing all along before I even read Allen Ginsberg — easing the pain of living for myself, and hopefully for others, through writing. I know a lot of people want to hear some kind of poem that is victorious — like the defeat of a bully or clawing yourself out of a dark pit and seeing the faces of the sunflowers, but I also believe reading something very dark — like a glass of sour milk for the soulless — eases the pain, too. Just doing this interview eases the pain for me. Reading Sophocles or Schopenhauer eases the pain. I believe Nietzsche once said, “The thought of suicide is a great consolation: by means of it one gets through many a dark night.” I think Freddy had it right. Dark thoughts are healing for some. They work like an exorcism. More often than not, they make me feel a hell of a lot better. I find the denial of our nothingness and meaninglessness and forcing oneself to be optimistic or hopeful or only chasing the “gold,” which as Robert Frost says, can’t stay, is far worse for the psyche than facing our demons, our darkness, our terrible predicament here. One day we will be but a belch from a maggot’s mouth. The worms will dance the can-can across our corpses while chanting that the future is propaganda and burp “carpe diem.” Hug the goddamn darkness while you can too. Let the spiny demon’s claws ride atop your hands as you punch the tiers of keys.
abandoned psychiatric grounds
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