Poet Wolfgang Carstens talks about the music, life, death, poetry, Nietzsche, Homer and Jim Morrison

Poetry is the first language we learn. It begins with nursery rhymes, lullabies, and silly songs like“Boom, Boom, Ain’t It Great To Be Crazy.” 

Wolfgang Carstens: In Abyss of Life

Wolfgang Carstens is the author of Crudely Mistaken For Life and The Abyss Gazes Also; publisher at Epic Rites Press; independent distributor at Tree Killer Ink; and organizer and host of Ground Zero: A revolution of word, image and sound! Wolfgang Carstens lives in Mittinhed, Alberta, with his wife, five children, two cats and a dog.  Mittinhed is a small village situated in the heart of the Canadian prairies.  

Wolfgang Carstens is poet, publisher, editor, husband, father, social commentator, intelligent anarchist and many more. Photo by Randall Edwards

Wolfgang’s first book of poetry, Crudely Mistaken For Life, was released in March 2010.  It has since been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, garnered outstanding critical reviews, placed on the recommended reading list at Small Press Distribution, stocked on the shelves in numerous libraries, and portions of the book have been translated into numerous languages, most recently Croatian.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What experiences in your life have triggered your ideas most frequently?

The experience of death, and how the living react to it, is the catalyst for much of my work.  No matter how many funerals you attend, how many bodies you bury, or how many tears are shed, the experience never gets any easier.  A few weeks ago, for example, at my mother-in-law’s birthday party, no sooner had the cake been placed on the table, when the telephone rang and my oldest stepdaughter received the news that her grandmother had died.  She was instantly thrust into this strange situation where she had to decide whether to stay and celebrate the living or depart and grieve the dead.  The experience became the framework for the poem reprinted below:

life

is

too

damn

short

to

waste

mourning

a

corpse

 

there’s

barely

enough

time

as it is

to

celebrate

the

living

 

let

the

worms

do

their

job

 

and

 

let’s

do

ours

"When people read my work, they get charged up to start living ferociously—and this (as pointless as it all seems) gives my life meaning."

What have you learned about yourself from your writing of your poems?

I’ve learned that positive reader reactions to my work have given my life meaning in an essentially meaningless world.  This may sound cliché but we are born to die, and when the ultimate gift at a baby shower is a tombstone and a handful of dirt, one is hard pressed to find good reasons to create art.  I mean, after all, what’s the point?  You can fool yourself with answers here: to be remembered, to leave a legacy, etc, but ultimately, life is pointless.  It’s like sitting around a party waiting for all the guests to leave so you can finally go to sleep.  But, saying that, the fact that we’re sentient creatures that want life to mean more than what it actually does, doesn’t negate the gift of life.  The fact that life has a beginning and an ending is what gives life value.  All we can really do is live to our highest potential, make every moment count, and do our best to make the most of our time above blades of grass.  When people read my work, they get charged up to start living ferociously—and this (as pointless as it all seems) gives my life meaning.

How would you characterize the philosophy of Wolfgang Carstens poetry?

I think a poem from my newest book The Abyss Gazes Also is the most concise statement of the philosophy behind my poetry.  The poem is reprinted below.

life is

too short

to waste

on the wrong jobs,

the wrong relationships,

the wrong ideas.

 

soon enough

you’ll be planted

on the wrong side

of the grass.

 

if you’re looking

for a foundation stone

upon which to rebuild

here it is:

remember that you must die.

 

be ruthless

in the choices you make,

in the company you keep,

in the pursuit of happiness.

 

live to the point of tears.

 

(you haven’t much time)

"Music is very important in my life. I can trace the most important moments in my life and relate them to music."  

What has been the relationship between music and poetry in your life and writing?

I always have music playing when I write.  When it’s not playing, a few notes are always rumbling around in my head.  One of my favorite songs “Die Young” by Black Sabbath, haunted me for years.  When Ronnie James Dio died, I took a really hard look at the lyrics of this song and realized that I had misinterpreted the song my entire life.  It isn’t “die young” as in die before you get old, but rather “die young” as in stay young forever in heart, mind, and spirit.  Ironically, one of the poems from my first book Crudely Mistaken For Life (reprinted below) contains a few lines from that song: “Live for today. Tomorrow never comes.”

one step away

most people

take everything

for granted—

even their short

time here

on this planet.

 

they plot

their futures

as easily

as children mark

their height

on a door jamb,

never realizing

that death

is always

one short step

away.

 

it’s the end of May

and snowing again.

i step outside

onto the icy steps

with cigarette

in mouth,

coffee in hand—

 

and slip

all

the

way

to

the

bottom.

 

my bones shatter,

sour air is squeezed

from my lungs

 

i can’t breathe,

i’m dying,

beached

like a turtle

on its back,

suffocating

in the open

expanse of space.

 

i think

about the cosmic

gag reel,

and wonder

when my name

will be added.

 

death

is always

one short step

away.

 

pencil

that on your calendar,

plot that

on your time-line,

 

live today

 

(tomorrow never comes)

"People need something to grasp onto at the street level. Any popular movement centers around an idea that is enriched with music, a catchy slogan, and a logo."

How important was music in your life? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

Music is very important in my life.  I can trace the most important moments in my life and relate them to music.  The day I met my wife. When my kids were born.  The day loved ones died.  In my daily life, as the organizer and  host of GROUND ZERO REVOLUTION events, music is integral to the success of these shows.  If you have a very serious reading, for example, that leads the audience into a dark room without windows or doors, an uplifting musical performance immediately afterwards can shatter the walls of that dark room and put them back in a celebratory mood.  One of my favorite performers, Jack Micheline, used to weave music into his readings and sing a-cappella.  I’ve never done this, but it’s something that I aspire to incorporate in my own spoken-word performances. 

      Music affects me in the same way that the moon influences the tides.  What’s playing in the background will influence what you are writing and (from a performance standpoint) how you are reading.  I experienced this recently while recording poetry for a forthcoming CD project.  My reading changed dramatically when music was added. On a personal note, I’m happy to announce that one of my songs “Lethe” is being recorded by husband and wife rockers, I Am Machi, and I couldn’t be happier about that!  It’s a song about drunkenness that was inspired by a line from Rimbaud’s poem “Bad Blood”—“The best thing is a drunken sleep.

Can the arts shape the human spirit and mind?

Absolutely.  Poetry is the first language we learn.  It begins with nursery rhymes, lullabies, and silly songs like “Boom, Boom, Ain’t It Great To Be Crazy.”  Everyone writes poetry to explore the darkest corners of their hearts and express their deepest emotions.  When something tremendous happens (good or bad) everyone turns to poetry to work through it.  The great travesty, however, is that the majority of educators kill the enthusiasm for poetry in most kids by teaching them that poetry is all about form, structure and rules.  They say, in essence, that poetry is something that can be used to express yourself honestly and without reservation—and then they hand them a fucking rule-book to do it!  Bullshit!  Poetry, if it’s anything, is about reaching into the marrow of your bones, pulling out the best stories, and then doing your best to put the right words in the right fucking order! 

"My hope is that future generations will realize that life was more meaningful without cell phones, I-pods, tablets, E-readers, and that social media sites like FaceBook have created a false sense of living."

What was the relation between music, poetry and activism?

People need something to grasp onto at the street level.  Any popular movement centers around an idea that is enriched with music, a catchy slogan, and a logo.  If you look at Nazi Germany, for example, it could be argued that an entire nation of civilized people were seduced by music, poetry and a twisted cross.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

The most important meetings for me were my introductions to authors Rob Plath and John Yamrus, and to Neil Querengesser, my first year university professor.  Not only are Plath and Yamrus foundation stones at Epic Rites Press (four books by Plath and four books by Yamrus), these are only two authors who have influenced my writing in any significant degree.  Plath taught me not to be a dictator with my poetry: not to censor my poetry, to unload my poems in whatever form they chose, and to write like an ogre is banging at the door.  Plath’s book Tapping Ashes In The Dark (Lummox Press, 2008) is a mandatory purchase for anyone who wants to experience the value of good, raw poetry.  Yamrus taught me that poetry doesn’t belong on a pedestal, that great poetry doesn’t need to be about lofty ideas: that the hangnail, the hair on the tip of your nose, and your hemorrhoids are just as important as the loved one you buried last week.  He taught me that great poetry needs to be pared down to the bone.  It’s worthy of note that books by Plath and Yamrus provided the catalyst for Epic Rites Press.  I read their books and thought, this is what I want to do with my life.  Querengesser was my first year university professor.  I owe much of who I am today to him.  He overturned the damage that was done by years of bad professors who strangled the life from poetry.  Querengesser restored my passion for writing, reading, and performing poetry. He’s one in a million and I’m thankful to count myself among one of the lucky few to wander into his classroom.

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to the new generation?

“Live to the point of tears.”—Albert Camus

"I would love to spend a day talking with Socrates, about anything and everything." Photo by Larry Travis

What are your hopes and fears for the future of world?

My hope is that future generations will realize that life was more meaningful without cell phones, I-pods, tablets, E-readers, and that social media sites like FaceBook have created a false sense of living.  I see a group of kids nowadays hanging out the mall with their faces buried in electronic devices and their fingers busy texting on a screen.  They hardly talk anymore.  It kills me, it really does.  That isn’t living.  The newspaper headlines proclaim THERE IS NO ZOMBIE APPOCALYPSE, and yet, as I look around at the human spirit absorbed in electronic devices, I’m not so sure the newspapers have gotten the story right.  There is a zombie apocalypse happening right now, and chances are if you look around the room you’re sitting in, you’ll discover that you’re already surrounded.  My fear, of course, is that the zombies will win.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you?

John Yamrus keeps me in stitches every day.  Just yesterday, for example, talking about rejection letters, he remarked on the nature of perseverance and how “Getting turned down for a blowjob wouldn’t stop you from trying.”  My daughter learned to ride her bike recently and when she finally started moving without her training wheels, she screamed “Look at me Daddy!  I’m doing it!”  As she raced up and down the block, she screamed “My name is Raven and I can do anything!”  It was one of the best moments of her life (and mine).

What from your memorabilia and things (books, records, photos etc.) would you put in a "time capsule"?

The complete DVD series of “Little House on the Prairie.”  Let’s see how future zombies react to that.

Let’s take a trip (!) with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go? Past or future really..?

If I could travel back in time (and not fuck up the future with my actions), I would probably rescue some of my heroes from their sad entries in the cosmic gag reel.  Things like delivering penicillin to Friedrich Nietzsche and Charles Baudelaire; warning Francis Bacon about walking in the snow without proper clothing; telling Rene Descartes to put a fucking sweater on before jogging; turning Bon Scott on his side so he didn’t choke on his own vomit; and I would also like shadow Claude Monet and learn what a day in the life of a true fucking artist was like.  I wouldn’t warn him about the tide, however...

"Everyone writes poetry to explore the darkest corners of their hearts and express their deepest emotions. When something tremendous happens (good or bad) everyone turns to poetry to work through it."

If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would a void to do again?

I think everyone wrestles with this question at some point in their lives—and some wrestle with it daily.  There are so many things in my life I wish I would’ve done differently, but the flip side, of course, is that these things have made me who I am today.  There’s nothing I would change (as much as I want to), forwards or backwards, and to anyone who thinks otherwise, I can only advise them to say “yes” and embrace everything.  Embrace the good, the bad, and when deciding how to act in the future, think about Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence and act only in ways that you want echoed for eternity.  The importance of this cannot be underestimated, because if you’re anything like me, you’re haunted daily by your poor behavior in the past.

What would be your first decisions as minister of education and culture?

My first decision would be to go back to Plato’s “Republic” and re-evaluate it.  Our society is founded upon false principles like “equality” and “free will” and “freedom of expression” and while these principles sound great on paper, they are lies fabricated by Western society.  These principles are illusions and if our society is to be repaired, it needs to be grounded in reality, not lies.  It was Protagoras who said “Man is measure of all things,” and yet, until the true measure of man is discovered, all measurement is meted out in ignorance.  Our society is founded upon ignorance.  This is a great question!  An essay question actually...

"I would love to shove my middle fingers into the eyes of Mark David Chapman and tear his fucking face clean from his skull."

To whom would you like to show your middle finger …and to whom to give a kiss?

I would love to shove my middle fingers into the eyes of Mark David Chapman and tear his fucking face clean from his skull.  I would love to give Charles Baudelaire a hug because I think he needed one.  I really don’t think there’s anyone I would like to kiss, except my wife, my kids, and my mother.

Which of historical personalities would you like to meet?

I think I covered this question already in my time travel answer: Friedrich Nietzsche, Charles Baudelaire, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Claude Monet and Bon Scott.  To this I would add Socrates, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Jim Morrison.  I would love to spend a day talking with Socrates, about anything and everything.  I would love to discuss Schopenhauer’s “The world is my idea” with him and tell him that he was correct.  Hell, put Schopenhauer, Descartes and myself in a room together, and there would be magic!  I would love to meet Jim Morrison and talk about poetry because I really believe he could’ve been so much better. 

How you would spend a day with Bukowski, Russ Meyer and Gregory Corso?

To be perfectly blunt, I wouldn’t want to spend a day with Bukowski, Meyer or Corso.  None of these individuals have influenced my work.  I would much rather spend the day with Todd Moore, John Yamrus, Rob Plath, Henry Denander, William Taylor Jr., Pablo Vision and Zarina Zabrisky—preferably in a bar with an unlimited tab.

Do you believe that Homer would ever like to receive a poetry award?

Homer is one of the truly great poets.  Anyone who hasn’t read “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey” is missing out on what great poetry means.  I don’t know if he would want to receive an award or not.  As his society was all about honor, however, I’m guessing that he would welcome an award and be thrilled to no end by the influence of his work, by the numerous statues and exhibitions in his honor, and his place in the cannon of great literature.

A watercolor portrait of Wolfgang by Henry Denander

What would you say to Death? What would you like to ask Frank Zappa?

To death: “You win, motherfucker.”

To Zappa: “Where can I get a drink in this shithole?”

Wolfgang Carstens - official website

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