We have now experienced forty years of hip-hop culture, we are a full generation removed from the beat generation, and both are being taught to our young writers. We have rappers publishing poetry (Saul Williams), we have newly discovered and repackaged ramblings from Kerouac being published all the time, and we have access to hundreds, if not thousands, of literary journals and small publishers with the click of the mouse. It has never been so easy and at the same time so difficult to have your voice heard. In my mind, there is only one thing that can set a poet, a true poet, apart from the mass of "writers" releasing work all over the internet, passion for the craft. Atlanta poet, Christopher Cunningham, oozes that passion from every part of his body. He is both concerned about and conscious of the impending future of poetry, and he is doing everything he can to preserve the true and simple nature the poem itself.
This past week Christopher released his seventh chapbook, "Flowers in the Shadow if the Storm", and took some time out to discuss with us the current state of poetry.
Orange Alert (OA): In a recent post on the blog "Upright Against The Savage Heavens" you wrote this in regards to the "poem" in general: "does it touch on the depth and tragedy of the human condition in a way that hasn't been said a hundred times already? does it use language in a clean simple way to reveal larger, more difficult-to-explain truths? is it honest, free of ego? or should it stay on your myspace page diary/blog? or better yet, unwritten?"... In your opinion what is the current state of poetry and what additional advice do you have the young poets?
Christopher Cunningham (CC): well, it seems to me that poetry today is a broken wine bottle in the hands of hacks, a hip-hop teenager with a slant-rhyme Kerouac tongue, myspace blog entries steeped in bullshit and fake-tough prosaic word-masturbation, a sad factory worker with no hope, no magic and no gamble writing vicarious amusing anecdotes about people they can't be, fold and staple manifestations of a fading work ethic and the last gasp of imagination. poetry today is a world of ivory tower tenures, incestuous publishing houses, big-box corporations, obscurity on vast shelves and MFA workshopped safe experimentation with acceptable language. it is wacky colored cardstock and cheap paper, it is careless and it has no readers. it is the metaphor, adrift in a sea of ten second online mags printing everyone who submits, drowning slowly.
but fortunately, crawling on its bloating corpse, are a few writers and publishers who refuse to sink into the depths. there are some who believe that poetry is in fact the truest expression of the human essence, that the tool of metaphor is still best for understanding and putting into words that which is impossible to say otherwise, believe poetry is a mysterious force that when done well has the power to help us endure and illuminate some portion of our dark lives. I tell you, plenty of people love to suck the holiness out of the artform, will casually piss on the magic of creation (a manifestation of the fake tough-guy attitude that only matters to small press poets; it is a fun romantic notion, but it is a delusional position, like the "outlaw poet" that works in a library or reads at Borders Open Mic Nights), but I shit directly upon that attitude. I don't trot poetry out as religion, but as I don't care to revise my work, I am lazy and don't believe in "crafting a poem, " I just generally improvise directly at the typewriter so I cannot possibly tell you where the words come from, and to me, that is a thing of wonder. I could give a shit if your job is hard, if your wife is a bitch or if she isn't, if you drink too much or party too much or your kids are your shining goddamn joy or whatever you want to write about; what I want to know is this: are you writing a poem that tears away a veil, reveals some larger human truth, speaks to the human being beyond your narrow worldview? is it honest? or should you buy a notebook at the dollar store and keep that crap to yourself? when the lines pour out just right, and the right words land on the page, effortlessly, is that not magical?
anyway, there are some out there keeping the words alive and burning, is all I'm trying to say, and my advice to young writers (I'm old as f**k at 37) is to read the great books that have already been written, seek out and read the writers who are getting it down today for real, and lastly, support, with CASH, those publications you enjoy/submit to and buy a chapbook from a small press poet. I think it is important to try and discover your own "voice" which will inevitably be an amalgamation of various influences distillied into your own experience and way of saying it. and don't mistake simple language for simplicity of thought: remember sometimes the haiku can be most profound. it's all about the right word.
OA: Who are some of your biggest literary influences?
CC: my biggest literary influence is Miles Davis. the space he leaves between notes, his insistence on a kind of spontaneous perfection, the way he would not look back to his older work as he moved forward with a vision of musical progress, the tremendous scope of his vast improvisation, all set deep examples for me in my approach to writing. for me the act of writing is a process of reflection and then explosion, a way in, and the poems are the result. as far as writers who moved me, I'd say T.S. Eliot, Fante, Hemingway, HST, Kesey, Carver, anyone who said it clearly and cleanly with honesty and style.
OA: What book do you own that you treasurer/read more then any other?
CC: I mostly have tattered copies of all the books I've read, but as far as a specific title that made a marked difference in my life, I'd say either Ask The Dust by Fante or whichever volume I have that contains T.S. Eliot's The Hollow Men.
OA: Tell us a little about your new chapbook "Flowers in the Shadow of the Storm".
CC: my new book Flowers is my first trade paperback, a perfect-bound wonder of a book printed by hand by David McNamara at sunnyoutside, he letterpressed the cover and designed/printed the guts then I hand-painted each cover, all variations on the lightning strike theme. most of the poems were written directly for the book, I think David cut some hundred poems down to the final thirty. the book is kind of a "poetic concept album" dealing with the storm as metaphor. I think it is amazing, and the poems don't suck too badly, I hope.
OA: Looking back at some of your previous chapbooks (18 Blue Collar Abstractions, Animal Life, etc), you seem to give a lot of attention to the presentation of your poetry. How important is that to you and your work?
CC: a book is a totality of expression, in my view. the whole thing should be a poem. that's why I like to go the extra mile and make my books something more than just your average piece of shit chapbook done as cheaply as possible. I want the book to be something I'm proud of all the way around. and it isn't hard or prohibitively expensive, but nobody is doing it. everyone is so f**king "satisfied" with mediocrity in our brown wasteland of a society, and it is reflected in the work of our "artists." I say it doesn't have to be that way, hell, an average press run in the indy world is what, 100-300 copies? 500? how difficult to paint a few, to choose a bit better paper, to care? I know it's much cooler to be apathetic and not give a f**k, man, to be "all, like, whatever and shit" but not me, kids: I care about stuff.
OA: What's next for Christopher Cunningham?
CC: right now? some wine.
OA: Coffee? If yes, what is your favorite kind of coffee, and where is your favorite coffee place?
CC: Iced americano from Aurora Coffee, an independent shop here in Atlanta, served by Tommy (from The Selmanaires) or Mathis (from Noot D' Noot). black coffee saves lives.
OA: What type of music do your enjoy listening to currently? Who are some of your all-time favorites?
CC: Right now, see the two bands above, I highly recommend Noot D'Noot (check out their myspace page). all time, I am an old Deadhead and I also love Calexico, Los Lobos, Dr. John, christ, the list is huge, Bob Dylan, Medeski Martin Wood, Talking Heads, on and on.
For more information on Christopher Cunningham and to read some of work visit his website. You can also find him on the blog Upright Against the Savage Heavens, and to order your copy of his new book go here. There are also copies left of his previous book, "and still the night left to go" availble at Bottle of Smoke Press.