American poet, writer, editor Eddie Woods talks about poetry, music, the Beats and “Ins & Outs”

“Life is…What you make of it. For me it's an ongoing adventure. The ups and the downs. And there've been plenty of both!”

Eddie Woods: The Gangster Poet

“That get-up is perfect for you. You’re the gangster poet, after all.” - Harold Norse to Eddie Woods

 

Eddie Woods was born in New York City in 1940. At age 20, facing the draft and not wanting to get his fingernails dirty, he joined the US Air Force for a 4-year stint, spent mostly in Germany. He subsequently lived and traveled in divers parts of the world both East and West, crisscrossed much of the United States twice, and eventually settled in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where in 1978 he started Ins & Outs magazine and later founded Ins & Outs Press.

Eddie has variously worked as a short-order cook, computer programmer, encyclopedia salesman, restaurant manager, journalist, radio DJ, and precious gems dealer. His literary work has appeared in numerous online and print periodicals, including most recently Exquisite Corpse, Parisiana, Beat Scene, Sensitive Skin, Chanticleer/Ol’ Chanty, Primal Urge, and Nictoglobe.
Eddie's book Tsunami of Love: A Poems Cycle appeared in 2005. It was the inspired offspring of a deep romantic turmoil that could only be transcended on the wings of passionate song. The CD version was released two years later. The book is additionally available in a Kindle edition. His long-awaited poetry CD, Dangerous Precipice, had already come out in 2004. In December 2011 Sloow Tapes in Belgium produced an audio cassette of Eddie's The Faerie Princess & Other Poems. Previous book publications include 30 Poems, Sale or Return, and The Faerie Princess (an erotic fairy tale in verse). Further books (poetry, prose, photography) are in the offing. An accomplished performer, Eddie has been on stage at events ranging from One World Poetry festivals, the North Sea Jazz Festival (poetry & jazz) and Crossing Border to several Fiery Tongues festivals in the legendary artists colony village of Ruigoord (near Amsterdam). His substantial archive was acquired by Stanford University (Palo Alto, California) in 2003.


Interview by Michael Limnios

Photo credits: Cristi Kluivers, Marc Morrel, Mike Rosenberg, Peter Edel, Karin Musso, Jane Harvey, Sacha de Boer and Sanne Bruggink

 

What first attracted you to poetry and how has it changed your life?
I got turned on to poetry by Robert W. Service (the Bard of the Yukon) and Dylan Thomas, two very dissimilar cups of literary tea. My father, who also gave me my first poetry anthology (which I still have!), used to recite Service. Then in my mid-teens a highly intelligent and wildly eccentric retired portrait photographer with whom I lived for several months got me to reciting Service (and Tennyson) into a tape recorder, by way of teaching me how to 'deliver words' and to improve my diction, my ability to enunciate clearly. Service was perfect for that, especially his ballads. The structure, the rhyme, the dramatic verve. Years later I learned that the poet Lew Welch was a big Service fan. Country Joe McDonald released an album of Service's anti-war poetry set to music: War War War. And ah, as a youngster Brion Gysin met and heard Service. That was in Canada, where Brion's socialite mother used to throw these big parties or soirées, to which she'd invite celebrities and entertainers. (However it was that Service's name came up in conversation, Brion told me this himself. And yes, he too was an admirer.) Anyway, not long afterwards I 'ran into' Dylan Thomas and he totally blew my mind. The Atlantic Monthly (or maybe it was Harper's) printed an unfinished poem of his that caught my attention. Till then he was unknown to me. I was intrigued. Went to the library and checked out his Collected Poems. Bought the first Caedmon LP and listened to it over and over. And immediately knew, 'I gotta start writing poetry!' I felt it as a 'calling.' I was 15. For sure it changed my life. Opened me up to new ways of seeing things. And making discoveries, including about myself. Ideally that's what writing is, and in fact all art: a continual voyage of discovery. Btw, that eccentric photographer, Gilbert J. Vincent, further taught me how to raise and train Doberman Pinschers for show. Knowledge that served me well when I got to handling German Shepherds in the Air Force.

 

How do you describe Eddie Woods' philosophy? And what characterizes his poetry?
Gee whiz, do I actually have a philosophy? Whatever it is, if it is, can be found in my poems and other writings. And is steadily evolving. I'm not trying to evade the question. But I am afraid that any more specific answer I might give will unavoidably sound pompous. Must I leave God out of this? What I conceive of as God. Can I say I'm a pantheist? I'm a pantheist. God is everywhere and everything is God. And I'm a Catholic and a Buddhist and a borderline agnostic. I make the Sign of the Cross daily and pray to the Madonna and the Hindu goddess Kali. Whew! I don't hold with bitterness and I don't hold grudges. I don't make promises, and have even banished the word 'promise' from my vocabulary. I don't do guilt. Hope smells of death to me, and so I use the word 'hope' only figuratively. I'm terribly skeptical, about everything. I take nothing for granted. I try not to take any wooden nickels. Kindness and compassion are supreme virtues, and sex is the cat's meow. Yeah? My poetry is incredibly diverse. In style, form, themes. Much of it is erotic. Some of it political. There are many love poems. Et cetera. I rhyme and I don't rhyme, depending. I do a lot of rewriting. I want to get it right. 'First thought, best thought' may work for some poets, but not me. (And some who think it works for them are wrong!) Can't have music playing when I'm writing.

 

Poetry and music…can these two arts confront the “prison” of the spirit and mind?
All the arts can do that. And should do it, must do it, nonstop. "Poetry is not a waiting room where one stays overnight...every word is war." - Rolf Dieter Brinkmann. I often quote that. For good reason. It's spot on!

 

What is the relationship between music and poetry?
They're intertwined. Have been as far back as the lyric poetry of ancient Greece. Even if what I'll call 'pure music' resides in a different realm, a separate dimension. And as such is arguably the highest of the arts. Reaching out to the divine, rubbing shoulders with it. I'm talking Western classical. Indian classical. Look, I dig all kinds of music. Rock, jazz, country & western, blues, pop. I'm a huge Frank Sinatra fan. Elvis was the King! I can listen to Leonard Cohen till the cows come home (there's a marriage of music and poetry for you). So okay, I'm in Bangkok, early 1970s. And on my first really strong acid trip, with my friend Daryl. A chick he knew had given him two tabs, but told him to take half. Half? Naw, we took one each. Whoosh. In no time flat it was the whole nine yards. Into the white light, becoming the white light, etc. Went on for hours. Then Harry Rolnick walks in. (We lived in the same hotel. His apartment was downstairs from mine. I'd rung him to help us order hamburgers from room service!) Daryl and I are lying on the floor, spacing out on music. The Beatles or whatever. Harry looks, listens, leaves; and comes back minutes later carrying an album, an LP. Takes ours off the turntable and put his on. Bach's St. Matthew Passion. We'd been coming down. Suddenly we're flying again. "Got it?" I heard Harry say, before the white light took over, and Johann Sebastian. Like that.

 

What would be your first decisions as minister of education…and culture?
I wouldn't take the job. I don't want to be part of any government. Besides which I'm not qualified. In the late 1970s the poet and filmmaker Piero Heliczer publically crowned himself Emperor of Europe and straightaway appointed me minister of aviation in his 'New Holy Roman Empire.' My first and only 'decree' was to ground all aircraft, permanently. 'That'll put paid to skyjacking,' I figured. And bloody mass tourism! Hey, school ought to be fun, not achievement oriented and stressful. Compete, compete! Leave competition in the sports arena. Students should be urged to think for themselves. To discover their talents and work on developing them. Decide what attracts them and study those subjects. Read. Ask questions and challenge the answers. Relax. Scrap exams. Lectures and tutorials will do. Culture. I favor private patronage over state funding. The latter is too rigid, with too many criteria. And the state has the power to censor. Know any deep-pocketed sponsors for me?

 

Do you believe that nowadays there are things to change at any level?
Before I go all cynical on you (and I will), let me start by saying that capital punishment must be abolished. In some countries it's doable. In America it has to be doable, public opinion be damned. Its continued existence there is an evil stain on that nation's social fabric. Now for the cynicism. Things need to change at every level everywhere. That's always been the case. But for that to occur there'd have to be a revolution. Not a political revolution. Political revolutions have a habit of turning in on themselves and becoming what they overthrew or worse, only wearing a new mask. I mean a revolution in consciousness...in every man and woman on the planet. That's a tall order. That's universal enlightenment. So forget it. Heed Voltaire and cultivate your garden. And along the way try and effect small meaningful changes locally. More neighborhood litter bins, better bicycle paths, affordable council housing, rent control; whatever. You can't change the world. War will never end. Peace on earth is a pipedream. Capitalism sucks. Socialism sucks. In all their variations. The only approach to economics that makes sense is what E. F. Schumacher, in his book Small Is Beautiful, called Buddhist Economics. It's a spiritual approach and will never be implemented anywhere. Greed and venality won't allow it. The thirst for wealth and power won't allow it. Voting is a con game, a rigged deal. With rare exceptions, the good guys never win. Because the good guys know better than to run. How did Bukowski put it? "The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don't have to waste your time voting." I applaud those who take to the streets and rage against the government. But I have no faith in demonstrations. Look at how many folks in Great Britain and elsewhere marched against going to war in Iraq. Who are marching and demonstrating all over Europe against austerity and spending cuts. Who are 'occupying.' And? Democratic governments love that shit. It's the System's built-in safety valve. Petitions are practically useless. I refuse to sign them. I'm not a gardener, but I've got a garden to care for. It's within me.

 

If you could go back to the past, what things you would do better and what things would you avoid doing again?
There are very few things one couldn't have done better. I reckon that's so with most people. What's important is to do better from here on out. Past shortcomings can serve as a guide. When they do, they get transformed, they become positive influences. I could have dealt with some of my relationships better. But the other person could have, as well. The only thing I can think of that I couldn't have done better was selling encyclopedias. After a time no one was saying no. And no one was canceling. It was almost frightening. I would avoid driving at speed on icy roads late at night after having too much to drink. It's a wonder I survived rolling that little German Lloyd five times (it landed on its wheels and facing forward). It was a nice car. So was the Mercedes I smashed into the side of a bridge when I took my eyes off the road while arguing with my second wife. I'd avoid that, too. Taking my eyes off the road, I mean. That covers the 'avoid' bases.

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Every period in my life has been interesting. Except for childhood, till age 10 or 11. That was dead boring. I couldn't wait to leave it, to grow up. I left it, all right. Now maybe one day I'll grow up ...(smile). Definitely unique was the long spell in Singapore when I was kept by my Chinese drag-queen prostitute lover, Kim. She housed me, fed me, nourished my creativity. She turned me on to the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Abbey Road. I read Moby Dick while I was with her. Then she read it. We loved one another very much. Kim was special.

 

 

What experiences in your life make you a good poet, prose writer, editor and publisher?
Nearly all. The Air Force, selling encyclopedias, traveling, my love affairs. Working as a journalist. The whoring. The drugs. Spending time in a Buddhist hermitage. Reading. Chance encounters with exceptional individuals. On and on, it's a long list.

 

What is your DREAM…and what is your nightmare?
My dream is to stay physically and mentally healthy until the big curtain comes down. And when it does, that it will descend peacefully. To go whilst making love with a beautiful woman has a cool ring to it ('he died with his boots on'), but only if she'd not object. My nightmare is to again fall prey to severe depression. Three times is enough. They're hell. Though I suppose purgatory is the more apt term. Burning my 'sins' away. The shortest one (a mere five months) I managed to write myself out of with the poem "Tsunami of Love." With the other two I had to wait. And wait. I'm beginning to suspect cosmic reasons for them. I emerged stronger.  

 

Happiness is…… A room full of teddy bears. What you feel in the first flush of being truly in love. It seldom lasts. The loving yes, but not the 'in love.' Then it's back to the teddy bears. Krishnamurti was once asked, "Are you happy?" He replied: "I don't know, I've never thought about it." Nor have I.              

 

Poetry is……. The kiss of life. It soars with eagles. Slithers through jungles with snakes and lizards. Gets its hands dirty in mud and grime and washes your face clean with the balsam. Tugs at your soul. In short, it's a reality check.    

 

Life is….. What you make of it. For me it's an ongoing adventure. The ups and the downs. And there've been plenty of both!

 

Peace of Mind is…… A clear conscience. Knowing you have faced, are facing, your demons and they've not gotten the better of you.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Thankfully there have been too many highs to single out any one. With respect to the worst, see my answer to your nightmare question. That was the pits. Unquestionably.

 

Which historical personalities would you like to meet?
I can't think of one. Seriously. For what purpose? To shake their hand, get their autograph? Somerset Maugham wrote that he wouldn't cross the road to meet a president or a king, and was "content to know the writer in the pages of his book and the painter in his pictures." Me too. But what the hell. Cleopatra. To behold her fabled beauty with my own eyes.

 

How you would spend a day with E. E. Cummings? What would you say to Henry Miller? What would you like to ask Buddha?.
Frankly, I cannot imagine spending an hour with Cummings, let alone a day. I love his poetry. And the last line of "Somewhere I Have Never Travelled" is surely one of the most sublime phrases ever penned: "nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands." (It also applies perfectly to a former lover of mine.) What I would like to know is how the author of "I Sing of Olaf" and The Enormous Room could become a McCarthy supporter. No, I'd sit him on a barstool next to Dashiell Hammett, then lean back and listen to them thrash that matter out! To Henry Miller I would say Thank You! For his books and essays, his life, and for setting writers everywhere free to write as we damn well please. Buddha. I'd ask him whether, before he left her and the kid, he enjoyed having sex with his wife.  

 

What is the “feel” you miss nowadays from Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs?
There's nothing to miss. We have their books, their writings. And there are young writers and poets coming along all the time who are (or will be) just as exciting, possess equal energy, and have as much to say. Corso harked back to Catullus. Ginsberg to Whitman. Burroughs stands alone, but he'll be back! Plus lots of the old dogs of their general ilk are still around, and still churning stuff out. So no, no missing.

 

Why did you think that THE BEATS continue to generate such a devoted following?
The Beats were a force. They broke new ground. It's good that magazines like Kevin Ring's Beat Scene are documenting their exploits so thoroughly. But their cult status has turned them into an industry of sorts. The notion of a 'Beat movement' is a myth, one that Jack Micheline described as the product of media hype. All those associated with what has become known as the Beat Generation were creatively distinct. Each had their own voice, their personal views and visions. They knew one another and frequently hung out. They were colleagues. They shared ideas and cross-pollinated. Their correspondence is worth getting into. Yet I think it's time to stop relentlessly lumping them together. "Three writers do not a generation make." - Gregory Corso

 

You have been traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?
Well, I did miss a few places. That I never spent time in Italy is shameful. I'm full-blooded Italian, for chrissakes. Neapolitan. But true, I've traveled extensively. Travel broadens your horizons. Ultimately nowhere is strange. Wherever you are is home. The moving about is home. Home is you. 

 

 

You had a pretty interesting project, “Ins & Outs”. Where did you get that idea?
I've written about this at length in A Brief History of Ins & Outs Press. Readers can find it on the internet. But here's the nutshell version. In early 1978, Jane and I were passing through Amsterdam, or so we thought. (Jane Harvey, my wife at the time and to this day my closest friend.) A travel agent was wanting to start an events magazine along the lines of London's Time Out and convinced me to edit it, even though I'd warned him that with me at the helm he'd end up with something else. And he did. An international literary publication, Ins & Outs (his title, my mag). Three issues on the travel agent bailed. Whereupon Jane and I split Holland, thinking to continue our travels. That was the first incarnation of what later metamorphosed into Ins & Outs Press. The second incarnation began when Jane and I came back from Barcelona, where we'd cut our journeying short. We got hold of the files, registered a cultural foundation, opened a bookstore (that we kept going for two years), produced a fourth issue of the magazine, and followed up with books, postcards, silkscreen prints, and audio cassettes (of live readings in what had been the bookstore space but was now a gallery). That incarnation lasted until mid-1992, when I went financially bust, lost the Ins & Outs 'empire building,' and concentrated my focus on other activities (more writing, organizing poetry evenings, performing, and in due course assembling and selling my archive). After my return to Amsterdam in 2004 from a six-year 'romantic interlude' in Devonshire, England, the Press resumed publishing, albeit on a much smaller scale. So a trinity of incarnations.

 

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from the Ins & Outs era?
The first incarnation was magical. It was eight months of round-the-clock creativity. And coming at us from all quarters: writers, poets, artists, musicians, snowmen, conmen, space cadets. We were a meeting place, a constantly pulsating magnet. The door was always open, with people going through it day and night. Contributing, discussing, arguing, entertaining, making love. The whole while Jane and I and the art directors working our asses off to get the magazine out. And the travel agent running for cover. A particular highlight was the launch party for the first issue. The office, and it was a large office, was packed. The travel agent initially had other travel agents backing him, whom he naturally invited. The moment they saw the mag, they stormed out and held a protest meeting on the sidewalk. There were snacks and big bowls of punch, one of which was laced with top-quality LSD. Apart from myself and Jane, nobody knew that (no, we did tell the travel agent). Yet only those for whom the acid 'was meant' (i.e., who could joyfully handle it) dipped their ladles into that bowl. The party went on until the wee hours. It was out of sight. Gosh, Stephen Crane uses that expression in his novel Maggie: A Girl of the Streets ("You're the kind of man we like, Pete. You're outa sight!"). That was in 1893! Nothing new under the sun, as they say.

 

Are there any memories from the One World Poetry festivals which you’d like to share with us?
The closing night of the first festival was extraordinary. I wrote and published a long 'prose-poem rap' about it, Poetry & the Punks: An Apocalyptic Confrontation. It's in P78 Anthology and also on the web. So what I'd rather briefly talk about here is the organizer, Benn Posset (aka 'Soyo Benn'). He was a visionary who put Amsterdam on the international poetry map. Brought dozens of poets and writers from all over the world and provided them with eager audiences. Not only during the annual festivals, but at countless events in between. His vision was a one-world 'spirit of ideas commune,' with the poets as messengers. He regularly staged performances at various venues for a decade and a half. The last of these was a major William Burroughs Tribute in September 1993. Benn died of cancer a year later. He was 49. His accomplishments have yet to be equaled.

 

If T. S. Eliot were between us now, what do you think he would tell us?
Nothing he hasn't already said in his poetry. Eliot towers. Four Quartets is a masterpiece. They are all masterpieces. Don't you just shudder when you read lines like, "We shall not cease from exploration..." and "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still"?

 
Eddie Woods – Official website

 

Photo Credits:

The Gangster Poet / Photo by Cristi Kluivers

Airman Eddie and Held. Sembach Air Base, West Germany (1963)

Eddie Woods (1980) / Photo by Marc Morrel

Eddie Woods (2008) / Photo by Sacha de Boer

Eddie Woods smoking (1988) / Photo by Karin Musso

Eddie in Amsterdam East (Sept 2010) / Photo by Sanne Bruggink

Bicycle Eddie / Photo by Jane Harvey

William Burroughs and Eddie Woods (1985) / Photo by Peter Edel.

Jane Harvey, Eddie Woods, Terry Ford, and Diane (Kabul 1975)

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