21 May 2009

interview: wolfgang carstens

Screaming at the Top of His Lungs

Wolfgang Carstens has more enthusiasm about poetry and the written word than most people, certainly more than me. Based somewhere deep in the Great White North, Wolfgang runs Epic Rites. What started out as a MySpace Group, has evolved into two on-line journals-Epic Rites and The Thin Edge of Staring, a variety of webpages, a Ning social network and a press. The initial line-up from Epic Rites Press is impressive: Mark Walton, Rob Plath, and David McLean. He somehow also has time to promote other presses and poetry related activities, in between bottles of wine and no sleep.

Wolfgang is also a vocal proponent of a specific style of writing, a concept he draws from a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche: "Of all that is written I love only what a man has written with his blood. Write with blood and you will discover that blood is spirit." This concept acts as a mission statement for Epic Rites “Workers in Blood” Chapbook Series, as well as the press as a whole. Wolfgang’s concept toward poetry is somewhat similar to that of the Brutalists out of England.

From The Guardian

…As they explain in their online manifesto, Brutalism "means writing that shows no quarter. Writing that rages and burns across the page - writing that doesn't worry about causing offence, breaking taboos, cutting to the heart of it. Writing that may shock and shake the reader into submission rather than gently caress them. We're not anti-intellectual or anti-literary but we are anti-apathy and we exist in a highly agitated state."

Both styles of writing, Brutalism and Writer’s in Blood, focus on candid, raw, powerful language that utilizes few devices and very little metaphor. Essentially there are no rules except to be true to the word and the language. Honesty is an absolute. Some have called it anti-academic; post-punk; or, post-structuralism. In a true punk tradition, these styles and those related to it, are more than willing to say fuck you to established publishing houses in order to get their work into press and publication, and more than a few small presses are willing to give them ink. As more and more excellent writers that work in this style gain greater notice, bigger presses pick them up. Harper Perennial has released Tony O’Neill and signed Dan Fante to a four book deal. Hopefully here are more big presses willing to take a chance on underground writers from this school. And if not, publications like 3AM, Beat the Dust, Lit Up Magazine and Epic Rites Press, among others, are more than willing to step into the void.

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Jack Henry: In the prologue above I compare your concept of Writers in Blood with that of the Brutalists. Do you think this is a growing style of writing?

Wolfgang Carstens: Absolutely. As more brutalist/blood writing gets exposure in magazines and books, it prompts more writers to abandon literary technique and write from their guts. Writing that is raw, honest and brutal is contagious because that’s how real people think, talk and communicate with one another. That’s how we sound when we’re angry, scared, grieving and in love. As Rob Plath put it, poetry is like talking a jumper off a ledge. The only way to do this is to speak to her in simple straight talk. Anything else, as Plath put it, “is equivalent to pushing the fucker off”. Poetry, by this definition, is about communicating your message honestly without masks and bullshit. It’s about putting the right word next to the right word – the right line next to the right line. We instantly connect with brutalist writing and with brutalist authors. Their honesty and brutality inspires us to throw down our masks and scoop our own guts onto the page.

JH: Epic Rites is a great example of a concept growing beyond its origins on MySpace and taking on its own life. With the release of Frostbitten by Mark Walton, Epic Rites has taken another step forward.

How important is the Internet and social networks/blogs to writers today? Would Epic Rites exist without the Internet?

WC: Epic Rites exists today because of the internet. The way that I operate Epic Rites Press would not be possible without the internet. I’m one of those people who takes charge. If I’m not happy with the submissions I’m receiving I go out and hunt for material that gets me excited. This means lots of blog surfing. Because of the internet I’m no longer dependent upon submissions to put out magazines and books. I can sit down and read through blogs whenever I want. If I find something I like, I approach the author about publication in one of my netzines. If I find a lot of something I like, I approach the author and discuss possible book projects. None of this would be possible without the internet. By the same token, the internet and blogs make it possible for authors to let their words work for them 24/7/365. A good example of how important the internet and blogs are for authors is that every writer involved with epic rites today has been discovered on the internet.

JH: It might be a leap on my part, but I see the work of the Brutalist’s and other groups, as well as the style of writer that you’ve attached to Epic Rites Press seems to be a particular school of style. Is there value in identifying such a thing? Can a movement have importance to a writer?

WC: Absolutely. Identifying a movement (and supporting it) is especially important with the brutalist movement and young writers. We all go to school and are brainwashed into believing what ‘great writ-ing’ is and how to emulate it. Here I’m not just talking early education but at the college and university level as well. We put our brutalist writing down on paper whereupon it gets squashed flat by our in-structors. They teach us how to move beyond the raw power of our words and dress our poems up in pretty pink skirts and tap shoes. They instruct us, in essence, how to be bad writers – fake, pompous and pretty. The brutalist movement teaches us to write with blood. It’s important to identify blood writing if for no reason other than to empower young writers with the confidence to extend their middle finger at tradition. “Write with blood,” we tell them, “because blood is spirit.”

JH: When I first started writing poetry I saw it as a dying form. I am not convinced that it is in renaissance as some have suggested. What is the state of poetry? Is it resurging? If so, do we owe this to NEW MEDIA?

WC: I honestly don’t have any answers here. I would love to have statistics about how many new poetry books were published last year, how many were published exclusively because of the internet, what kinds of promotions were done (by publishers and writers) and how many of those printed books were sold. Unfortunately I do not have such information.

I have a lot to say about how to help such a revolution along but that’s an entirely different matter.

JH: I haven’t ask this question to others, and I probably should have, but it seems to me that the new style of writing we are speaking to is a reaction to something. How would you respond that idea?

WC: My formula for great writing (borrowed from Schopenhauer) is having important things to communicate and to communicate them well. Every great writer strives to be understood. This, for me, is the cornerstone of brutalist/blood writing. Beyond that brutalist/blood writing is a reaction to traditional poetry. It’s focused upon the guts/message of the poem and not traditional poetry techniques like rhyme and meter. Brutalism abhors pretty pink dresses and tap shoes. Brutalist writing is concerned with the message – not with how technically sound is the structure of the poem. It’s very liberating to put your message out there – whether it happens as a poem, a rant, a grocery list, etc. In essence bru-talist writing removes poetry from a pedestal (and academia) and brings it back down to street level into the hands of those down and dirty in the mud and stench of everything human.

JH: I spend more time on Facebook than I should. Every time I log in it seems there is a new group announcing a new on-line outlet for writers. The following question has been asked to everyone involved in this investigation, each answer has been substantial different. Are there too many outlets for publication? Is it too easy to be published?

WC: I don’t think there are too many outlets and/or that’s it’s too easy to be published. There are magazines that publish excellent material and there’s magazines that publish tripe. As writing is a matter of personal taste, I’m fine with it. I reject 99% of the material that reaches my desk. If that 99% of material gets picked up elsewhere (and it does), that’s great. As long as publishing material that I believe in, I’m living to my highest potential. The only drawback I find here is that because bad writers are getting published in bad magazines, they start believing they’re good writers. Then when their works gets rejected by me (or by others) they’re confused and often blow a gasket. I try really hard to steer clear of the drama but in this business, it’s part of the game. One rejection snowballs into trash-talking, nasty bulletins, deletion from friend lists, etc. It doesn’t bother me personally but I know this behind-the-scenes drama is responsible for many presses disbanding and for editorial meltdowns.

As for too many books being published, that’s another matter. As I remarked in our interview for the epic rites journal, I see a lot of presses putting out bad books by great writers. Almost as if publishing the book was more important than the book itself. Also, there’s the case of authors putting out multiple books almost simultaneously with different presses. Again, this behavior leads me to believe that publi-cation was more important than the books themselves and/or supporting the presses that initially sup-ported the author. This behavior poisons the well for everyone.

JH: Along the same lines, with so many on-line outlets is the quality of “literature”/writing being diluted as a whole? Can brilliance still make it to the surface?

WC: I don’t think the quality of literature is being diluted as a whole. To the contrary, the brilliant writ-ing shines even brighter when surrounded by shit.

JH: In another interview an editor pointed out to me that it’s amazing to get published, every single time, and I agree with that to some extent. I have always advocated that if a writer is serious about their work and craft, they should pursue publication of that work. You must expose your work to the public in order to grow. A writer cannot live in a vacuum just as marijuana cannot grow without sun.

Recently I have noticed a blizzard of chapbooks being released on hundreds of different presses. Many times an author will have chapbooks appear in subsequent months. This creates a glut of work by a single writer. Does this decrease the value of that writer’s work? If anything, can overexposure lead to a degree of apathy from consumers?

WC: Yes, absolutely. I touched upon that issue above. This poisoning the well is a real concern of mine. It hurts the writer personally (especially when weak material gets published) and that will haunt him/her in the future. Consumers will be wary of investing their hard earned cash in a writer who they feel cheated them in the past. It also poisons the well for every press because all it takes is one bad experience/book and they will be wary of investing in any press. Here I think about the idea of a guild of presses that we’ve discussed and see much value in its creation. Such a guild would put presses on the same page so to speak – stopping such blizzards from happening.

JH: In December of last year hundreds of layoff’s occurred at the big publishing houses. As the business model of the publishing industry continues to implode, the ability of small press writers to get the “big chance” decrease. What do you think is the future of publishing?

WC: The future of publishing lies in authors/presses taking matters into their own hands and keep hammering away with promotions. They need to build web pages, promote in new media avenues like MySpace and Facebook, as well as hit traditional venues like indie bookstores, universities and libraries. Hit places like Bookers and Chapters. List on Amazon. They need to get their work out there – ven-ues like Rob and Jack America, for example. Invest a bit of money – place ads, print fliers, hit the major venues with readings and signings. Approach distribution outlets. This may sound simple but it’s hard work that should be done – but isn’t being done. Small press is only as small as the imagination and motivation to succeed. I’ve recently been in contact with cancer treatment centers and std clinics who’ve expressed interest in putting one of my books into their waiting rooms. That’s great!! Also I’ve been looking into setting up an epic rites booth in one of the larger shopping malls here in my city. It’s a prototype to the bookstore that I envision epic rites to be. It’s hard work but really what’s the point in publishing books that nobody knows about? Only by taking matters into your own hands and getting dirty will those “big chances” happen.

JH: The goal I have with my press is to help a writer get exposure and to a bigger audience. It’s a challenge because of cost, lack of marketing and distribution. Subsequently I have scaled back my ambitions, but not the goals. What challenges do you face running a press and/or a variety of journals?

WC: Time is a major obstacle for me. I find myself working 10 hour days putting books together. It’s hard work because I pride myself on putting together great books/magazines. It’s more important for me to put out a great book than to put it out quickly. Also, as I handpick and organize the material, it’s a laborious and daunting task (especially with feature books). This time depletion then wreaks havoc in other areas of my life – business and personal. Another obstacle I face is keeping up with day to day promotions and updates. Ideally I want to update the website every other week and publish new material in my netzines on a regular basis. This, however is not realistic right now.

JH: Focusing specifically on your efforts, what are your goals for Epic Rites?

WC: Right now my goals are to publish great writing and great books -then to promote the hell out of my authors/books. I have nine books in the works right now and I’m not looking beyond getting these out right now. With the epic rites journal I’m working towards incorporating more multi-media expres-sion/elements. I really want to add more artwork, photographs – as well as spoken word audio bytes. I haven’t had too many multi-media submissions yet but hopefully they will come. I’m working on the first epic rites journal special feature right now. Hopefully it will be ready for the next issue. I want to continue to promote underground operations like Rob and Jack America. Also, as previously men-tioned, the initial epic rites store is in the making – which will include merchandise that extends beyond books.

JH: I have mentioned in several interviews the need for a community of presses, a guild of sorts. To my surprise I have had a similar response from other interviewees, without my prodding. What could a publisher/editor do to expand the presence of their endeavors?

WC: I believe I’ve covered that already. Keep hammering!!

JH: What’s next for Epic Rites? For Wolfgang Carstens?

WC: Epic Rites has two chapbook series: the ‘workers in blood’ series and the ‘new blood’ series. There are also three feature books in the making. Forthcoming authors/books include works by Rob Plath, Karl Koweski, David McLean, Jack Henry, Mark Walton, Jason ‘Juice’ Hardung, Zach King-Smith, James Darman and Suzy Devere. I’ve also been working on a print edition of The Thin Edge Of Staring. The first epic rites journal special feature is in the works. I’ve been working with Zach King-Smith on the epic rites radio network which should be live on blogtalkradio soon. Personally, I’ve been working on organizing a book of my own. Right now, however, as it’s 10pm and the kids are asleep, I’m uncorking a bottle of Fat Bastard and getting drunk.

Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you.