Thursday, January 19, 2012

Interview with Small Press Legend Don Wentworth (Editor of Lilliput Review and author of Past All Traps)

Cover by Wayne Hogan
Back in the summer of 1989, I was just beginning to send poems out into the small press poetry world and heard about a little magazine that had just printed its first issue called Lilliput Review, edited by Don Wentworth.  The actual size of the magazine (4.25” X 3.5”) reflected both its name and focus.  The submission guidelines asked for poems of ten lines or less.  Curious, I sent off a buck or two and received a copy in the mail.   

I’ve been reading it ever since. 

A phenomenal twenty-two years later the format for the magazine remains the same, although some time in the first or second year of its existence Lilliput expanded to include Brobdinang feature poems  (in keeping with the Gulliver’s Travels theme), broadsides, and The Modest Proposal Chapbook Series.  In 2006, Lilliput Review was nominated for an Utne Reader Independent Press Award for "General Excellence" in the category of Zines.

Cover by Harland Ristau
In 2009, Don started a blog, Issa's Untidy Hut, extending Lilliput Review’s vision into the netstream, posting poems from the magazine’s huge archive, small press news, reviews of books, musings about life and art, a weekly haiku series, and, up until last month, Issa’s Sunday Service – posts of songs that have a literary reference (litrock).  Lillie also has regular posts on Twitter and Facebook.  World dominance can’t be far behind…

Over the years many luminaries of the small press (and the larger press) have contributed poems to the pages of Lillie, including, Cid Corman, Miriam Sagan, Charlie Mehrhoff, Albert Huffstickler, Tom Clark , Alan Catlin, Jack Collum, John Martone and Lyn Lifshin, along with many, many other brilliant poets too numerous to name here.  In any one issue you can find a range of styles – from haiku and tanka to the beat and surreal – but what I always find is a consistency of vision: the poetry within the pages of Lillie share an aesthetic of precision, along with an intense curiosity about the world.

Don is also the author of a book of short poems, Past All Traps, released in June of 2011 by Six Gallery Press.  Past All Traps has recently been shortlisted by the Haiku Foundation for the 2011 Touchstone Distinguished Books Award.  The collection was also chosen as a “Nov/Dec Pick” by the Small Press Review, has garnered rave reviews (one of which can be found here ), and was included on several end of the year reading lists, including one from Joe Hutchison and one from Kris Collins.

Sometime in mid-June, I checked my mailbox as I was heading out the door to a meeting, and found a book-sized manila envelope in my mailbox.  I didn’t have time to take it back upstairs to my flat so I opened the envelope out on the street.  Past All Traps slid out and I read the first poem:

Stop counting syllables,
start counting the dead.

Captivated, I walked for a good mile – across Swansea – seeing nothing but the poems, hearing nothing but the poems – totally engrossed.  I was very surprised when I arrived at my destination, my legs taking me where I needed to go, seemingly without ever looking up from the book.  I don’t know of any better praise I can give the book (especially since I don’t usually listen to music, talk on the phone, text, much less read, while I walk). 

The interview is divided into two parts.  The first section focuses on Lilliput Review and Don’s editing process; the second section is about Don’s own writing and the writing of Past All Traps


First off, why the size of the magazine?

There were two basic reasons for the size of the mag: first, my then (late 80s) growing interest in brief forms of poetry and, second, how economical it might be to put out a small magazine whose format actually mirrored the content when that format is the brief poem.  I had seen a couple of magazines that could literally fit in the palm of your hand and that intrigued me.  To a great extent, these mags were meant to be ephemeral: published quickly, inexpensively, and sometimes topically.  That’s how Lillie started.  Yet, somehow, I always knew I was in it for the long haul and, from the perspective of today, I now see it as my life’s work. 

Why do you think you're so attracted to the short form?

The story of my attraction to the short form is a simple one.  I returned to writing poetry around the age of 30 for a variety of life-inspired reasons.  I wrote lots of work in what was, and still is, a fairly standard free verse lyric form of 20 to 36 lines or so, some a bit shorter, some a bit longer.  A close friend at the time, a musician/song writer, who was the only one paying any attention to what I was doing and who was not a poet, simply said your short stuff is your best work, the rest is crap.  At the time, Rolling Stone was using very brief works as column filler in their album review section at the end of every issue and my friend urged me to send them poems. Naively, I did.  And, amazingly, the work was accepted.  That was the beginning.

Art by Wayne Hogan
In any issue of Lilliput, mixed in with the poems that are 10 lines or less are some amazing haiku.  Also, every Wednesday on your blog you post haiku.  Had you read much haiku before you started Lillie? 

The short answer is no, if my memory serves me well.  An interesting story is connected with this.  I received a letter from Rolling Stone one day that they forwarded to me from a reader.  The reader was the well-known literary agent, Virginia Kidd, who commented on a particular poem (Autumn: “One day all the colors of death / just fell into focus / and out again.”), that it was just a perfect haiku and could she reprint it in the newsletter she did for her clients.  I, of course, was flattered and agreed and then ran out to find out what a haiku was.  And she was right, it was a pretty good haiku, not great, but reasonably good.

 How has editing Lillie influenced your own poetry?

Collage by Guy Beining
Running a one person small press operation for over 20 years is, among other things, a learning experience.  In one way, it was my school: I absorbed work of all kinds and quality.  Editing a one person mag has been, for me, an experience I can only ultimately describe as an analog to writing poems.  There are a number of steps in the process, the two most important of which are finding a poem and integrating it into a larger whole.  What I’m driving at here is this: there is a creative spark, an intuitive leap that can happen if you allow it to in the assembling process.  It is my favorite part of the process and, ironically, it takes the least amount of time. Trusting that inner voice to put together  a 16 page collection that works both in terms of the individual works and collectively is poetry.  And, as with writing poetry, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Occasionally I look back and just scratch my head.  But, overall, when I look back I feel like I’m looking at a secret journal of my own creative life.

Art by Guy Beining
To be more specific, encountering and interacting with great writers in the short form – writers such as Charlie Mehrhoff, John Martone, Cid Corman, Ed Baker and many, many more – has been the schooling I referred to.  Along the way, a poet/editor picks up techniques, little trade secrets, approaches, things like that. The kinds of things workshops provide.  But ultimately none of that matters without true in-spire-ation.  Anyone who has ever been possessed by the creative spark knows exactly what I’m talking about.  When that takes over, it is the greatest high in the world.

Can you describe what it is you're looking for when you read for Lillie - and how that has changed over the years?

The old cliché “I have no idea what it is but I know it when I see it” applies.  Emily Dickinson’s “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry” has always struck me as true.  It really is an almost a physical, a visceral feeling. 

One thing that can be a struggle is a battle against sameness.  An issue shouldn’t be an issue of poems Don Wentworth wrote or could have written.  Sometimes I need to publish poems I disagree with.  Sometimes they need to be more lyrical, sometimes more abstract.  No matter what I do, the mag will be colored by who I am.  I made peace with that a long time ago.  Lilliput has changed greatly over the years.  As I became a better reader, it became a better magazine.

Art by Guy Beining (left), Wayne Hogan (right)
I consider myself successful at editing when I can hand a copy to anyone, non-poetry readers included, and they take something away.  There is something about the format that makes people smile immediately and that is such a great advantage for a poetry magazine.  It disarms people.  What is it disarming them of?  A natural bias against poetry, I think.  In American culture, this seems almost inbred. Something in the American educational system is broken.  Somehow the actual size of the magazine takes away the intimidation factor.

At that point, you need to nail it home.  The content, too, needs to be less intimidating, that’s part of what I strive for.  So generally when you have that fish on the line and they open the mag for the first time, they’ll find that Lilliput poems are brief, plain-speaking, cutting to the heart of what matters everyday: emotion, death, love, life, and the mystery of all things.  

The plain-speaking mystery.  It’s found regularly in Eastern poetry.  Plain-speaking without mystery to me is prose.


In June of this year Six Gallery Press published a collection of your poems, Past All Traps.  The cover of the book shows two Citipati, Tibetan Lords of the Cemetery, with arms and legs entwined, in apparent mid-dance.  When I finished the book I saw how each poem in the collection was a continuation of this terrifying and yet, paradoxically, joyous death dance.  Could you talk a little about how your perception of death - or, to put it another way, at the transience of all things – has influenced your poetry?  Or conversely, how the attention required for the writing of the poetry has influenced your own perception of death?  

Right to the core of the matter, eh, no pussyfooting around here.  How to begin?

When people, mostly non-poetry reading people, ask me about what kind of poems I write I tell them I write haiku-like poems.  That usually piques their curiosity – what’s the difference between a haiku and a haiku-like poem and, more importantly for me, what are the similarities?

I attempt to write in the spirit of haiku, as far as is possible for someone who is a Western, non-practicing Buddhist (when pushed for more specificity, I say I’m a lapsed agnostic).  What is the spirit of haiku?  Well, what I’m after I would say is a spirit akin to the idea of satori, or enlightenment.  In Eastern culture, specifically Japanese culture, there are the various Buddhist practices known as Ways.  There is the Way of the Samurai, The Way of Ikebana, The Way of Tea, and, also, specifically as practiced by Bashō, The Way of Haiku.  The idea is, for both poet and reader, the practice of haiku as a striving for enlightenment.  The idea of putting together certain elements, usually nature-based, that spark a third element or revelation, in the experience of seeing/writing the haiku, and in the spirit of reading haiku. The idea of satori in Zen is direct pointing, direct experience, and revelation. 

That is the spirit of Haiku, direct pointing, the striving for transcendence.

Death is at the core of all experience, it is what gives life its meaning, its essence, its flavor.  Without death, life would be intolerable.  Still, we are all humans and we all wish not to die so, largely, we suppress this knowledge, particularly in the West where we are so removed from the Earth, from nature, and direct experience.  I am attempting to write haiku-like poems that bring people back to the experience of basic things: animals, insects, trees, nature … and death, which encompasses all these things.

One of the techniques I use in this particular book is direct address in the second person singular: you.  Direct address immediately says, hey, you, wake-up, I’m talking to you.  Satori is, in fact, the act of waking up, the act of awakening.  Poets and writers have been using this form all through time.  Its use in haiku is at once a violation of the rules and a perfect Western analog to the idea of satori.  These kinds of poems are not contemplative, they are not passive, they require action, reader/listener reaction.  And they are particularly effective for public readings.

Although your work is grounded in the theme of transience and death, the journey you take the reader on is really quite playful, wry, and somewhat trickster-oriented.  I’m thinking of Love Song for a Dead Porn Star:

The petals of the mimosa fall out in pink
& white clumps, thick sap staining the car’s
finish where they stick. They gather on the
ground round the trunk, a fallen garland, a
veil shadow, the flat reflection of a former
beauty, branches stretched out above, naked,
an Eastern goddess or a cheap show stripper,
dancing, dancing on the corpse of the world.

I love the poem because it includes everything– tree, car, goddess and stripper – without judgment.  They all belong; they are all beautiful (in their way); they all will pass.  What do you see as the relationship between beauty (and even the erotic) and transience?

I have to say that you may be the first person who not only got this poem in its general sense, you are the first person who has ever even remarked on it.  Love Song for a Dead Porn Star is an older poem, dating back to the era when AIDS first began to be felt heavily throughout Western culture.  Initially, in the West, AIDS was culturally divisive – it was the “gay disease.”   When people began to realize what it was, what it was doing, and what it might develop into, it changed our culture forever.  In a backdoor way for straight culture, one of its most significant effects was to raise consciousness about gay men and women. 

This particular poem was meant at once to be a poem of mourning, a poem of transience, and a poem of awareness, with a potentially dire message for all.  The porn star who died was John Holmes and he was the first high profile “straight” case of AIDS to become generally well-known.  In a very real sense his death was a turning point.  Of course, what he did for a living invited the same type of blame-the-victim response that had previously been used to denigrate gay men.  It seemed important to me to mourn this man, to put his death in a natural context, with a mythic backdrop of Hindi culture to give some portent to its significance beyond his simple passing.

All that being said, there is a wry, ironic playfulness to the poem also, and I believe that specifically highlights the erotic aspect of both his life and death, and also the loss of beauty we all experience.  It has an initial joy, then sorrow, and then it darkens.  One must think, though, that in the cycle of Kali’s dance, there will be a rebirth, and a second coming, which leads us back to the beginning of the poem.  As with all death, it is part of the greater cycle of things.

Do you take copious pages of notes and then pare your work down, or are you more like a sumi-e brush painter, scrawling it all down in one go?

My work has changed greatly over the years but at its center is inspiration.  Without the creative spark there is nothing, at least for me as a poet, and I think my fascination with that spark is what has made me hone down the image to its very essence.

Don in HS, reading "Lost Horizon"
I don’t take copious notes and, as my style has developed over the years, I frequently write the entire haiku-like poem, in one burst – as you say, sumi-e like.  Like any other poet I go back over those few syllables again and again, to get it just right, to bring the essence, the one thing, forward, highlighting the briefest of moments in the best possible way.

Until fairly recently, it has always been about paring down; now, I can see that expansion, too, can work, which is what has attracted me to the 5 line tanka form. Some ideas or images are meant for one, some for the other.  Some much longer poems have been coming my way, too; who knows what the future might hold?  Though normally I “think” in the short form, I try to let whatever it is be what it needs to be.

In these poems there is a sense of you blending and merging with your surroundings – in opposition to the belief that we are all isolated bodies and personalities moving around other isolated bodies and personalities (billiard balls clacking together, so to speak). 

this late autumn evening,
yellow leaves
piled around
your feet.

Spider puts me gently
in his little box, takes me
back inside.

What is your sense of self?  Or, what do you see as the perimeters of the self?

Sumi-e by Suresh K. Bhavnani
I would have to say, honestly, what you are sensing is true and it is what I’m sensing, too, but I’m not sure I can adequately characterize it in terms of self.  There is sensing, there is feeling, and there is knowing, but what I believe you are getting at is really transcendence and, though I sense it, I’m not sure I literally see or am it.  The poems themselves are a working toward “seeing”, a working toward transcendence.  I do believe in the oneness of all things, definitely, the first poem you note, “Undressing,” is exactly that.  Have I ever felt it?  Yes, I have to say I have, fleetingly; mind-altering drugs can conjure this experience, and I’ve had that, but I’ve also had the oneness of feeling that Richard Bucke, in his seminal study Cosmic Consciousness, talks about so astutely.  It is my belief that all nature is one, including humans, that as Alan Watts was often fond of saying “We come out of the world, not into it,” in direct opposition to how Western spirituality characterizes the experience of being.

 The second poem, “Spider,” might, in fact, be a sort of transcendence.  I do literally take bugs, such as ants and spiders and centipedes, outside when I can and I have a little box for that.  Suddenly, one day when doing this before dawn, standing outside my house in the dark after having replaced some tiny creature back outdoors, it occurred to me that my house was my box, and I was being put inside and outside of it by the agency of the bug in a very real way.  The salient point here is the dance, the relation between bug and person. 

My favorite poem in the book is Samsara (for those who don’t know Buddhist terminology, Samsara means ‘the endless round of birth and death’.)


On the museum tour,
we listen politely to the docent
while looking at a 100-year-old photograph
of the room in which we stand.

I don’t even want to ask a question now, for fear of possibly ruining the experience of this poem (maybe I just wanted to post it in the interview!), but here goes: When you are writing a poem, do you have a particular sense of time you are working in?  

With this particular poem, it was a literal moment, this happened.  I work in a large urban public library attached to a museum and happened to be working in a room in the library that had formally belonged to the museum.  A museum docent was giving a tour that I observed and over his shoulder I saw a 100 year old photo with a group of people, standing in the same contiguous spot, as the group of people huddled around the docent, only clothed in markedly different dress. It was like a literal palimpsest – the revelation for me hopefully is also the revelation for the reader.  It is getting out of the way of the poem, getting out of the way of life, really, to let it do what it needs to, to let the poem be written.  It is direct pointing.

So, this poem is, indeed, not only about time but in a very real sense my experience of time universally, in a non-mathematical way, if you will.  Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that it is an experience outside of time, which is after all only an artificial intellectual construct.  In a larger sense, all of these poems are an attempt to get “outside of time”, a way to experience the eternal in the moment, in the now.

There is a poem in which you lambast Ted Hughes for thinking that being a poet ‘will ever be more/important than/being’.  I don’t know anything about Ted Hughes, having only read Crow and Gaudete (which I really liked), so don’t know any of his proclamations about the role of the poet.  Having said that, what do you see as the ‘role’ of the poet (if any) in our brave new 21st Century?

The poet is a town crier, a priest, a seer, a magician, a trickster, a singer.  Poets bring the news, good or bad, the emotional, the visceral, the unconscious news.

As to the Hughes poem: it was part of a series of poems I wrote using the idea of Ted Hughes as the archetypal male poet in which I posited a number of ideas I wanted to discuss.  Here it is the idea of the poet and what that might mean to some and what it means to me.   It isn’t particularly fair to him – I’m not sure I’m actually reacting to a Hughes pronouncement specifically, though I might have been; it is more of a feeling.  This, too, is an older poem and a bit fuzzy in my memory.  However, I do remember in the series coming around to the idea that I needed to treat him fairer than I had and I wrote two other poems entitled “Forgiving Ted Hughes” and “Loving Ted Hughes.”     

I know you’ve given a few readings of Past All Traps in the last six months. How do you perform such short poems? 

Performance of the short poem changed my work, at least a certain aspect of it.  I never imagined reading a poem as brief as a haiku in public.  God, reading poetry in public is a naked enough experience – to read something so brief that the listener might not have the opportunity to catch it was just frightening.  And then one day I saw a reading of Issa translations by Robert Hass and it was positively revelatory.  It was poignant, in your face, humorous and wonderful.  The result was I saw an element in my own work that I’d been developing that I knew would work and knew it would work well.  And that element was this.

 I’d be writing poems that were written in the form of direct address such as:

Morning glories
open to everything,
even you.

The direct address, as I mentioned earlier, was the immediate connection to a live audience and, though probably a blatant violation of every rule in the haiku handbook, it has, in my mind, its direct corollary in the spiritual element of Zen known as satori, or direct pointing.  Direct address as a form of direct pointing.  Here’s another:

            The sweet magnolia
            bows to all creation –
            and you were saying?

When I’ve read these poems at readings they evoke laughter generally, and it is this use of humor to get to revelation that is at the core of much of Issa’s best work.  Humor is very important in many spiritual and philosophical systems and, with poems like these, first the listener laughs and then, if she is on a certain path, she thinks.  It is with that thought the poem is completed, in the listener’s mind, and that, that most certainly is in the very spirit of classical haiku.

Another technique that is very effective in readings is where the poet pokes fun at himself.  For instance:

            My head up my ass
            not nearly far enough –
            the Meditation meditation.

Of course, this gets a big laugh … and then …

There are many, many of my short pieces that I wouldn’t perform at a reading because they wouldn’t make this kind of connection.   I have lots of pieces that are effective on the page
that don’t translate at a live reading.  I’m not all that sure it is very much different for poets who work in longer forms, it’s just more immediately obvious in haiku length work.

What’s next on the horizon in terms of your own work?

My publisher, Six Gallery, is interested in a second book as Past All Traps has sold well for them.  I have been writing virtually non-stop all year and have more than enough material for a new book and probably enough for a third.

The work itself has been varied and, the more I write in the brief haiku-like form, the more refined it is becoming.  Oddly enough, with something so restrictive, it seems to me to be, like 12-bar blues, infinite in possibility.  I also have written some in the tanka form and other simple open form short pieces.  I’ve also written 3 or 4 much longer poems recently: two are rants for oral presentation (“Poetry: a Definition” and “We Are Not Amused”) and a third poem concerning Richard Brautigan.  All of these, surprisingly for me, have been well received at readings, so there is that.  Currently, I’ve been drawn to reading a wide variety of classic Chinese poems and find myself very inspired by them.

First, though, I owe Six Gallery the manuscript for the 20th anniversary anthology of Lilliput Review.  Between that manuscript and the day-to-day work on the magazine, every spare moment I have is accounted for.  All I can really do, concerning my own work, is write and store away the random tiny slips of paper I scrawl on throughout the day.

Don Wentworth, Past All Traps

For a feature on the Lillie homepage that displays entire back issues of the magazine, click here.

For Lilliput Review subscription information, sample copies, or submission guidelines, click here.


It's just occurred to me that Lilliput Review has been around long enough now for someone who was born during the summer of ’89 to be writing their own short poems, and that young poet could be – right this minute, as I write this – sending them off to Don at Lillie. And so Lillie has entered the great wheel, having been around for an entire generation – something mostly unheard-of in the small press. 

All hail Lilliput Review.