Short interviews can be found here:

Below is an edited interview with Paul B. Roth,

editor of Bitter Oleander Press,

that appeared in

PBR: Thank you so much for allowing us to speak with you about your work. For those of our readers who may not know much about you, would you tell us about your early years and those influences that brought you to where you are today as a writer?

CG: My father was in the Navy, so I moved around a lot as a child. Both the swamps and woods of northern Florida (near Jacksonville) and the canals and fields and towns of southern Belgium (near Mons) had an immense impact on my writing. I now think of it as American wilderness and European civilization mingling in my mind and body. These two things can easily be mistaken as opposites — but I think they inform each other. Or, they inform each other inside me.

Death is pervasive in the wilderness. And this death is inextricably linked to life. They can't be separated. There are few words that can contain the wild. But what I can say about it is that I perceive it as beautiful. And, at the same time, I experience a terror within that beauty. Like life and death in a swamp, beauty and terror cannot be separated from each other. Because home was a rather tense place, sometimes frightening, I spent quite a bit of time wandering around and fishing in swamps alongside moccasins and alligators and the occasional wild dog pack (run!) and all manner of strange insects (so many that I imagine some of them had probably never even been named), and that beauty/terror feeling has stayed with me and is probably the main source of my work.

Being in the natural world, mostly alone, I would spontaneously perform rituals for no reason at all. Here's one: after I gutted a catfish, I'd cut the head off and place it in the crotch of a live oak. The next day, when I returned, it would be gone (gone, gone, always gone). I think there was a sense that something mysterious — a spirit, a god, something I couldn't name or fathom — was taking my offering at night. At the same time, I knew it was probably a raccoon. But I held both of those things in my mind together — they didn't cancel each other out. The catfish head is part of some mysterious interaction with the invisible world and the catfish head is also food for a raccoon. (Think Keats' Negative Capability: I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.) Either way of looking at what happened to the catfish head was interesting, magical (biology is magical!). I was participating in, and so acknowledging (on an unconscious level), the cycles, the natural patterns. When I first discovered poetry, and then started to write my own poems, I imagined the act of creation as an extension of that catfish head ritual. Call and return.

Death — the acknowledgement and acceptance of it — was pervasive throughout the culture of southern Belgium, too. The land that was to become French-speaking Belgium had been conquered and occupied by Spain for about two hundred years (1581-1714) and that particular strain of Catholicism was still evident when I lived there. I was not brought up Catholic so my encounter with it was quite mind-opening. It, too, was both beautiful and terrifying. When I wasn't in school, I spent a lot of my time riding my bike along the canals, riding through town after town, and I would inevitably end up inside some local church. Christ hanging bloody from his cross. Candles lit for the dead. Cool arches of stone. Old women in black, praying. Unlike in mainstream American culture, death was an accepted part of life. I lived in a small cement factory town (Obourg) and a coffin maker lived across the street. The entire time I lived in that town, a child's coffin was displayed in his window. So, every morning, waiting for the school bus, my sisters and I were face to face with a child's coffin. Death on display. Casual. Mortality. What is.

Now, combine that dark Christian strain with the over-cultivation of the countryside — only the weeds in the sidewalk were growing wild — and you start to get the mind turning back on itself, looking for the wild somewhere, anywhere. So, in Belgium, the wilderness is found within. You can see it in the work of the Flemish painters of the late medieval period: Bosch, the Breughel's. They are portraying the wilderness of the mind, the shadow-creatures hiding just out of conscious sight. When I first saw the paintings by Bosch in Brussels, I was stunned. "I know those creatures!" They reminded me of people I knew: the guy in Obourg who sometimes flashed his penis at passersby; the ever-giggling vagrant in Orange Park (Florida) who had supposedly been kicked in the head by a mule. But the creatures in those paintings are also aspects of the human mind. They are the merging of inside and outside. My love for surrealist-oriented work (Lorca, Vallejo, Cesaire, and especially the work of the later surrealist painters Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo) can easily be traced to my time living in Belgium, and my first reaction to Bosch.

Other influences would obviously be the times in which I grew up. I have memories of the Vietnam War on television, race riots, Nixon resigning. My father was an aircraft carrier pilot who bombed Vietnam. So, I had a father who was "at war" but I was surrounded by a culture that was carrying on as if that war was not happening. The US still conducts its wars this way. Iraq, Afghanistan — we carry on as if we're in a peacetime economy. In the last election (2016), there was hardly a mention of any of these wars. The focus — when there was any focus on issues at all — was on the economy. The culture in general talks about the economy as if it is a separate category, standing apart from nature, from our various wars — a desperate desire to make it stand apart from the world. But the military industrial complex (and its wars) has been woven deep into every aspect of the economy.

While in Belgium I attended an international school — went to school with students from all the nations of NATO — so I grew up seeing the US as being one nation among many. It has its beauty, it has its horror. I remember watching effigies of Uncle Sam being burnt in many town squares in Europe during my youth. Which triggered the question "Why?" Even as a kid, I knew better than to immediately settle on the simplistic and idiotic Bush explanation: "Because they hate our freedom." (What does that even mean?)

When I returned to the states it was hard to comprehend the cultural bias toward moral superiority and exceptionalism. I saw the culture from the margins — I was not quite American, but not European either. So, for me, the political can't be put into some separate category and forgotten until some event calls it up. I don't quite understand the need to separate kinds of poetry: political poetry, love poetry, nature poetry. It makes no sense. Do we separate experiences into marketing categories in our daily lives? The world is infinitely more complicated than that. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Borders are mostly an illusion.

As an adult, when I returned to the swamps where I used to fish, I found that they had been drained, houses put up along the river, grass lawns planted. There was tremendous rage and sorrow. In such a case, how can the political be separated from my nature mysticism? How can it be separated from my own history or the various surreal creatures in my psyche? How can it really be separated from love?

PBR: Upon first discovering poetry, which poets most blended for you the political with the natural world, the "beauty" with the "terror" of life that's come to make your language both vibrant and so engaging?

CG: In the mid-eighties, I found an old anthology called Naked Poetry in a used bookstore in Philadelphia; an anthology of the poetry pop stars of the sixties (Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Robert Bly, Etheridge Knight, Allen Ginsberg). There were quite a few that had an immediate influence. I was particularly attached to Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra. Like our current situation, the Reagan era was full of lies, in a desperate attempt to rewrite history and destroy the gains of the sixties and seventies. The language the Reaganites used was troubling and frightening, promoting greed, the demonization of the poor, and war.

Wichita Vortex Sutra pulled back the veil of Newspeak used during the Vietnam War — all in the context of one man's travels, desires, and encounters (language used like magic for power on the planet…). It helped me understand that I was in a stream of time that connected me back to the horrors of the sixties, that it was the same consciousness perpetrating the same crimes in the eighties (Ginsberg: Black Magic language, formulas for reality — Communism is a nine-letter word used by inferior magicians with the wrong alchemical formula…). Wichita came from the book Fall of America (although not included in it until the Collected Poems appeared) and that book presented the political alongside, or interwoven with, absolutely everything else. Everything in the book is experienced at the same time and Ginsberg records it without siphoning it all off into specific categories.

Levertov's O Taste and See is still one of my favorite books. Through her poetry, and her essay on Organic Form, I began to think about language and poetry in terms of the erotic. When I say erotic, I mean partaking of the aura of the god Eros, not necessarily centered exclusively on human sexuality (although this is obviously included). Eros is the god of Between, the place where one thing seemingly ends, and another begins; the sensual knowledge of how things are seamlessly interwoven in the world; the experiential understanding of relationship and pattern.

In the Orphic vision, Eros is the one who brought the world into the light. First, the Mother-of-All called Night, a vast bird with black wings, was embraced by the wind, and she laid a silver egg (the moon) in the lap of Darkness. Eros hatched from this egg, golden winged, with four heads, and double-sexed. He/She revealed and brought into the light everything that was previously hidden in the egg — the entire universe. Eros is the god — the androgyne — who reveals the world. It is through the experience of relationship that the world comes "to light." So, Eros is the personification of the perception of the living world as a network of relationships. (David Abram's amazing book The Spell of the Sensuous helped me clarify these thoughts much later.) Where does the body really begin and end? Our immediate experience of things is an experience of reciprocal encounter — meaning, to touch is to be touched. To feel the pine is to be felt by the pine. (In the west, this can be seen as a phenomenological way of interpreting experience. In the east, it's fundamental to Taoist experience.) Everything is alive!

At the same time as I was reading Levertov and Ginsberg and Snyder et al. someone gave me a copy of The Last Poets' Oh My People. That was a revelation. Poetry, up until then, had been something I was reading silently on the page, but The Last Poets grounded my understanding of poetry in sound, in music, and I began to read poetry out loud, see it as a communal ritual or performance. And I noticed that reading poetry out loud was somehow helping to awaken my dormant senses. It wasn't just the content of the poetry that was awakening my senses but the use of breath, the breath-line, the rhythm and music of the breath. Prana.

It occurred to me that poetry, that singing, might be one of the senses — that elusive "sixth sense." Singing poetry (words and rhythm indivisible) made the idea that we are divided into mind and body — that we are forever doomed to live in two different worlds simultaneously — feel like another grand illusion. Since then, I've experienced certain breathing practices in Yoga that can change consciousness, along with ways of breathing through Somato-Respiratory Integration. Whether singing is one of the senses or not is not as important as understanding that rhythmical breathing (like poetry) can be the gateway to different ways of seeing and being in the world.

Here's a story that may illuminate how Eros, the god of Between, of relationship, works in mysterious poetic ways: during my first close encounters with poetry, I was involved in a program in center city Philadelphia passing out sandwiches and coffee to homeless people, run by nuns out of a shelter for mentally ill homeless women. I got involved through a then-famous (in Philadelphia) common pleas court judge. The judge was one of a kind. She made her rounds with long, red-lacquered fingernails, heavy mascara, clacking bracelets, dangly earrings, the clip-clop of her high heels echoing off dark city walls. It seemed as if she knew everyone on the street by name. Down dark alleys we went, into the subways — sometimes solo, sometimes in pairs — hunting for those hiding in the shadows, clutching our plastic bags of sandwiches (made by Catholic school kids) and thermoses of coffee.

In the dead of winter, I encountered a woman sitting in the doorway of a store at the top of South Broad Street, near City Hall. As I approached she began to shout “NO!” over and over. I explained what I was carrying. “I don’t want your fucking coffee and sandwiches,” she shot back. “Get the fuck away from me!” There was something about her terrible defiance I admired. Driving home that night I kept thinking: “What can you utter that will speak truth to that?” How make true and lasting connections between the Reagan era policies that had resulted in so many people being tossed out on the street and the torture in that woman’s voice? How illuminate the power structure that's involved in a "charitable" act? That woman had been stripped of everything, forced to stand naked before hundreds, even thousands of passersby every day, and yet was still completely invisible. If you aren't mentally ill before you hit the street, living on the street will destroy your mind in quick fashion.

So, I was up late one night, listening to Coltrane (another early influence) with everything I'd experienced since discovering poetry swirling around inside me (The Last Poets; Ginsberg's Wichita Vortex Sutra; Levertov's O Taste & See and The Sorrow Dance; the judge and her clacking bracelets; the woman who screamed NO; Snyder's Riprap; Bly's Silence in the Snowy Fields and Light around the Body, Han-Shan's Cold Mountain poems, Kerouac's Mexico City Blues, singing as the sixth sense, Neruda's Residence on Earth, language and the erotic, Basho's Narrow Road to the Deep North, etc.), and it began to rain. I stopped reading, leaned out a window. The avenue below glistened. No cars. The pattern of cracks in the macadam shone like snakeskin in the streetlight. I suddenly imagined that the city was riding the back of a huge beast. Across the street, the Marlboro Man on the billboard above the abandoned gas station smiled down at the commuter rail line. I didn’t know why, but I suddenly crawled out the window, spun around, hooked my knees over the ledge, and dangled upside down.

In retrospect, I think what I was looking for was a different perspective. Because of the poetry I’d been reading I wanted to see what was out there in a different way. Curves, lines, shadows: trees clinging precariously to the earth, rocks glistening on the rail line embankment, the hunched postures of the few people passing (never looking down to see me dangling), the slight trace of dog shit and doughnuts in the air, the music of surrounding traffic rising and falling in ever widening circles, sparks from the commuter train wires falling into a milky orange sky…

At dawn, I wandered out of my apartment building barefoot, down to the hospital grounds nearby. The streets were quiet. The rain had stopped but everything was still wet. I climbed a knoll, headed towards a line of pines. When I reached the foot of the first pine, a mushroom suddenly burst out of the grass, white cap blooming before my eyes. Everything is alive! I went back to the apartment and wrote my first poem. The poem wasn't about the vision of the mushroom, but about the woman who had screamed NO! It was a terrible poem, but I still remember the last lines: No/is all/she calls/her own. I never finished my degree at Temple. A month after writing that poem I quit school, sold everything, and walked across France.

The final early influence was Rilke. When I returned to the states, the poet Kevin Bezner turned me on to Rilke (I've read the Duino Elegies once a year since then — in translation — I never learned German). In the Elegies, I found the words “beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror." I didn't quite understand it, but it stayed with me, and eventually became a koan of sorts (a Zen question meant to break the brain of its habitual patterns, enabling one to see what is). What did it mean? Did it really mean anything? A few years later, I got a glimpse of an answer, and I realized that those words were the articulation of the way I had experienced the world as a child.

The glimpse came one Christmas Eve at my Aunt Marita and Uncle Jack's house in the early nineties. As part of their family ritual, everyone performed or read something. My grandmother sat at the edge of the circle in a chair by the Christmas tree, eyes closed. She had always been a great storyteller, a writer of beautifully crafted letters, along with a no-nonsense approach to things, but she had started to withdraw into herself. She was ninety-four. A cousin was about to read from the book of Luke, and he announced that he was reading from my grandmother’s grandmother's bible (which is interesting because no one in that family really identifies as Christian).

Suddenly my grandmother’s eyes popped open and she stood up. She had become very frail, usually leaning on an offered arm to get around, so everyone was stunned when she stood up, unwavering and solid. No one moved. She stared into the distance with milky, half-blind eyes, like some Delphic oracle, and began describing a tornado swiftly approaching the farmhouse in Missouri where she’d lived for a few years as a child. There was no one in the house but her grandmother and a younger brother. Instead of taking the children into the storm cellar, the old woman had grabbed her bible off the kitchen table and flung open the front door. Outside, the world was tearing itself apart. Everything was on the wing; the sound of the tornado a black howl. My grandmother and her brother didn’t know what to do, so they followed the old woman out onto the front porch,  terrified, clutching tightly to her legs beneath billowing skirts. The front door banged on its hinges, branches and leaves skinned the house, wind shrieked into every crack, and the old woman raised her bible at the flying chaos and shouted, “My God is a beautiful God! My God is a terrible God! My God is a beautiful and terrible God!”

And there she was, my grandmother — hair slightly disheveled; arm aloft, holding onto an imaginary bible; staring at a tornado at the other end of the century; her voice deep, commanding, ancient, as she repeated her grandmother’s words: My God is a beautiful God! My God is a terrible God! My God is a beautiful and terrible God! For a few seconds, time collapsed, and my grandmother was my great-great-grandmother. Then she closed her eyes and settled back in her chair, silent for the rest of the evening. What the…? But there it was — the beginning of an answer to my Rilkean terror/beauty koan. The answer continues to unfold.

PBR: Which leads me to ask you how your own poetry services or oversees this undercurrent of terror and beauty?

CG: In many poems, terror and beauty are not separated. I am not juxtaposing one against the other. I see the two as functioning together like a yin/yang symbol — each has the other as a germinating seed inside it. In the poem, "The Beginning of Terror", from All the Beautiful Dead, all the sequences contain both what I'm calling "beauty" and what I'm calling "terror" together. (In a way, that poem could be seen as my poetics.) In the final sequence of that poem, I look up from the ritual chanting over a dead body and see candleflame shadows flickering across the wall. The terror of death and the beauty of the undersea — like shadows are a part of a continuum, not in juxtaposition. Throughout the poem, I am asking the question: what is beauty? But after looking up from the dead body at these shadows, "what is beauty" is no longer a question, it becomes a statement. This is beauty. But it cannot be beauty unless the terror is enfolded into it. Another way of looking at it: if the dead body is not affecting me deeply, how can the shadows truly move me? Maybe there should be one word for it, instead of two: beautyterror. (It's like the problem alternative health folks have with talking about the body and the mind — since they don't see a complete separation between the two they usually use the word bodymind. It's unsatisfactory, but there it is.)

Beauty and terror are not two things that I am trying to reconcile — they are already reconciled in the experience that gives rise to the poem. Two sides of a coin. In other poems beauty and terror are in juxtaposition. In those poems, I'm pointing out the duality going on. In the long poem that's centered around Swansea Bay in Wales called Tidal Flats (a poem that deals with the erotic aspects of language, the human body containing within it the consciousness of everything that has lived on earth before immigration, war, mass extinction, and — first and foremost — climate change) I am making a clear juxtaposition between what I find beautiful and the terror of climate change (how do we absorb it into our lives in some sane way, into such small minds?). In the poem, the terror comes not just from the consequences of climate change, but our ability to simply ignore it, to look away, to just go on with our lives as if it's not happening.

PBR: Could you tell us a bit about your writing process; what conditions you might seek in order to write; any special things you like to have around you or in place to facilitate your creative urges?

CG: I usually carry a small notebook around with me. The initial writing of almost every poem takes place outside. There's something about the moment telling me this is the place, this is the time, and I start describing what I see, smell, hear, feel, thoughts in the moment. Sometimes a poem will appear right then and there, but that's rare. It's usually a jumble, chaos, at first.

The point is to start with the body — the senses as extension of the body of the earth — and then, afterwards, allow the brain to start working the material. Quite often, what I've described, what I've chosen to focus on, how I wrote it down, points me in the direction the poem wants me to go. I think of the poem as a spiritual journey (The New Age movement and various institutional religions have helped destroy and demean the word "spiritual," but I haven't come up with another satisfying word so far), and so, I'm frequently moving in the dark, and it takes me a while to catch up with the language, with the imagery, from that initial moment when I first put pen to page. It's as if I'm growing into the poem. The process of poetry is a bit like going through St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul — the path is unknowable — I don't know where I'm going at first, and, frequently, I don't know where I'm going until I arrive at the end (I remember John Berger once saying something like: "We don't really don't know another's story until it's over, until they are dead." And so it goes…)

The sequence "The Place of Stones" in the manuscript Place of Stones was initially notes taken down in a hemlock forest (an old bluestone quarry) between Woodstock and Kingston, New York. But what I was trying to get down was too complex for me at the time to get down right away. It was four years later, in Santa Fe, that I went over those notes and discovered that I had grown into that distant moment, that I could finally put together what was happening among those stones. So, there's a kind of "question" being asked in those moments when I'm doing my initial descriptions. The writing process afterwards is trying to find "an answer."

PBR: Would you mind expanding for us how that constant birth of imagery through your language selection has made you the kind of poet that you are?

CG: Jung was once asked: "But, what is the unconscious?" And he replied, matter-of-factly: "It's the body." My experience is that dream images and deep imagery in poetry arises from the body. These images are how the body speaks. It's the language of the body. As I've said before, when I say "body" I'm not just talking about the perimeters of our skin — but how we are connected to all things around us, maybe to all things on the earth. So "body" necessarily includes all connections to the body. Our senses are shaping — and shaped by — a larger network of living systems.

The right imagery and music (language) arrive when I don't impose my own order on things, when I discover and follow the pattern that first appears. Sometimes, while working on a poem, I will force imagery, desperate to get the thing finished (thinking: OMG, this thing has been around unfinished for ten frickin' years! And you're not getting any younger, buddy.). But it never works. I must remain attentive to the original pattern. And the original pattern usually contains much more than what I've initially put down. Within the original pattern are all the connections — things I was unaware of in the moment. If I am attentive to the original pattern, then the energy of the original moment will be maintained — even if I finish a poem ten years after I've started it. I try to follow or uncover those original sounds and connections when I am on the journey of a particular poem....

This interview took place electronically between the dates of February 16th, 2017 and March 27th, 2017

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