Interview with David Chorlton
David Chorlton has lived in Phoenix since 1978 when he moved from Vienna, Austria, with his wife. Born in Austria, he grew up in Manchester, close to rain and the northern English industrial zone. In his early 20s he went to live in Vienna and from there enjoyed many trips around Europe to enjoy and paint its landscapes and towns. He has grown ever more fascinated by the desert and its wildlife, and especially enjoys the mountain ranges of southern Arizona. His books include A Normal Day Amazes Us (Kings Estate Press), Return to Waking Life (Main Street Rag Publishing Company), Waiting for the Quetzal (March Street Press), and The Porous Desert (FutureCycle Press).
SCP: I want to start this off with one of my favorite questions, and a great introductory one. Could you tell us a little bit about why you write? What draws you to the craft? At what age did you first gravitate towards such a practice?
David: It is easier to explain that I continue writing because it helps me examine my surroundings and allows the expression of ideas that wouldn’t otherwise occur to me, than to remember exactly why I started. The first attempts came during my time in Vienna around 1972/73, when for reasons inaccessible to me I started writing, casually. A stroke of good luck brought me together with an interesting group of English-speaking writers who met regularly in an informal workshop. So, I was in my mid-twenties when I first took part in a reading and thirty when I moved to Phoenix in 1978, hoping to find a similar workshop group here. As none existed, I helped gather one which met for a couple of years or so; long enough for me to learn something useful.
Poetry remains attractive to me, both to read and write, because of its aesthetic and the “serious” nature of the pleasures it brings. In the beginning, I think I looked around for anything to feed the appetite to write, while today I take an opposite view and try to use the writing to address whatever is important or appealing to me first. It helps me to stay in the present tense and to keep my senses sharp.
SCP: And secondly what about your other artwork? I came across a handful of your paintings and photographs online. Do you find these arts inseparable, part of the same spirit as your writing? Or do they come from different places, serve different functions in your life?
David: Painting was my first chosen art form. In all the time I pursued it seriously, I didn’t see it as having much to do with my writing, even if outside observers looked for a connection. It occurred to me that I could have been a poet and a plumber and nobody would have thought of connecting the two!
The best and longest series of works were the watercolor/pastels with a very European urban atmosphere. They definitely looked back rather than reflecting on my surroundings in Arizona. I have an ongoing interest in landscape in varied styles, as a kind of bonding with nature, but that hadn’t dominated what I did. I always liked to scribble or paint something on travels, almost as a sideline.
In the last ten years, I’ve let the painting go, outside of two or three landscapes a year during trips we take. There are lots of reasons to stop doing something, including seeing the quality fall away; the ideas becoming variations on an old theme; lack of incentive; re-evaluating its place in your life. Writing and working on readings when the opportunities are present have kept me from having any regrets about letting the brushes dry out.
SCP: Beyond that I can’t help but ask about some of the imagery in your poems, especially the desert landscape. I spent a good three quarters of a year camping in the Mojave Desert a few years back, and I am endlessly drawn to your very accurate, very haunting descriptions of this sort of environment. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences of the desert, and the space they so often occupy in your poems?
David: Having lived in England with its industrial cities and rolling, green countryside, then Vienna with its culture and its own set of shadows as well as grey winters, and having travelled around Europe a lot, I found the desert to be at once exotic, tense, beautiful, and for a landscape even shocking. The extreme climate fascinates me, as does the wildlife. I love the desert, lament the harm done to it, and enjoy most of all travelling through it and visiting the various “sky islands” of southern Arizona.
Writing during and after these travels is a way of telling others what is there, and of extending the experience personally. The contrast with what I’d known before still strikes me, even after thirty-three years. I admit to having had a bias against “nature poetry” for a long time, due to the rather comforting presence of landscape paintings on English chocolate boxes and a misunderstanding of the poets I heard about at school. Now I realize that Wordsworth and John Clare were writing about nature in the time of industrial expansion, much as the deserts (and other New World landscapes) are now under siege from growth. It took me a while to see there is nothing complacent in writing about nature. It wasn’t until I’d come to know the desert better that I started to write about it for its own sake. This landscape is, of course, also a dramatic setting for those who cross it today as it was during the age of padres bringing their religion to it.
Also, going back to aesthetic, writing about what we want to preserve is every bit as confrontational to prevailing systems as a more angrily worded poem or manifesto. I acknowledge my anger, but often find a better way of expressing it is to take the side of what I want to see protected. At least I can stay whole that way. We do become what we write (or paint of play) and I don’t mind becoming desert, thorns and all. Writing about a region such as ours, with its climate, goes beyond surfaces. Be it as a metaphor, a simile, or a stark description, the desert invites examination as a state of mind in those of us who live here. Even in the city, some desert atmosphere penetrates.
SCP: As this journal is read by a lot of other poets and aspiring writers I always like to inquire about an author’s publishing habits. How do you go about the publishing process (I suspect you have well over a hundred poems published online)? Do you send out pieces continuously or do you lay low for a bit then do a kind of submission blitz? What are your thoughts on the act of publishing in the face of ever evolving technologies that allow easier, cheaper and more independent printing? You have had numerous books released by small/independent presses; do you ever self-publish any of your work?
David: Basically, I submit as I go. I don’t save new work up for long. My friend, the late J. W. Rivers, who lived here around 1979/80, would telephone me to read a new poem. I might read one back to him. “Where have you sent it?” he’d ask, and I replied, “Hell, Jim, I only finished it fifteen minutes ago.” “Doesn’t matter,” he said, “it ought to be in the mail by now.” The system worked well for him.
Getting poems to where somebody can read them is important to me, regardless of the size of the readership. Writing is itself a solitary activity, but through the small presses we can break out of that. Starting to submit for anyone is difficult, when there is more guesswork as to what kind of work a specific publication wants, or whether it is worth the time to send to this or that magazine. In time, we become familiar with editors and the small press universe.
Whether it is the first or the tenth, getting a book published is a significant event. The big problem is distribution and selling enough to help both the author and publisher. There are readings as promotions of course, but they vary in number and interest in book-buying depending on where we live and what kind of audiences are there. We like to see our work treated well, and if an outsider is brave and generous enough to be our publisher, we have an ideal situation and a little extra satisfaction in feeling appreciated. If a poet writes more rather than less, she or he will have more luxuries and options about how to arrange a possibly irregular or chaotic life’s work. My choices help me to find what little order there is in mine.
I’ve taken the self-publishing route when I had specific reasons to, even while I was lucky with other presses. I self-published a collection early on, when you would type out the pages and take them to local offset printer. It served my purposes of having something to offer at readings. Later, I put together a chapbook to sell to try and raise money for a group that helped immigrants. It covered my costs and earned the group about $180, which was more than we could have donated personally. And I put another little chapbook together in part because I like making books, and in part because I knew some would go to a lodge in a canyon we like to visit and be there for people who don’t ordinarily seek out poetry.
Computers make it easier to typeset and prepare, even print, a chapbook today. I recently put together and began running off copies as I need them of a chapbook on my computer at home when I had a group of poems I thought went together and had no particular publisher I thought had any reason to undertake the small project. I’d also become aware of options some of the poets I know were choosing, and felt uneasy with the way the poet can be lured into pushing for an unrealistic drive for sales in advance by a certain press. Anyway, I’m not basing a career on my home printing, and have no illusions about it being more than it is. I’m aware of some first-class musicians (Cellist Matt Haimowitz and singer Loreena McKennitt) who have their own record labels, an interesting parallel.
SCP: My last question touches on a reoccurring theme here at Seven CirclePress. We are very interested in the question of the poet’s role in modern society. In a breath or two, why do you think the poet and/or poetry are important in the here and now of our fast-paced, increasingly extroverted society?
David: I’ve long been fascinated by the different perceptions we have of poets in other countries and particularly so in those who worked in restrictive systems, including communist or fascist ones. In this country, I often think a little censorship could go a long way to create more interest in what poets and other artists do and to acknowledge it. When a work of art is attacked institutionally, it often draws more attention than it ever would for its quality. Please note: this is an observation, not a policy statement!
Poetry doesn’t change the way things are. I think Europeans are more relaxed about accepting this, but they also recognize art more as a valid observer. The American impulse strikes me as being more activist oriented, and I do feel some sympathy for this, at least in the sense that all the little signs of discontent add up. Stepping back from all this, I think poetry in the US encourages subtlety and sophistication in the face of an often crass culture.
Poetry is invariably created in isolation, and that leads me to consider how valuable it is to have access to what comes through the quiet process and subconscious of people writing. Whether poetry is intensely serious or leans to spontaneity and lightness, it brings language to life. In a loud world, creative introspection is especially valuable and a foil to propaganda of all kinds.
And to finish on this point, I think the question of whether poets should write “political poetry” is less an issue than whether readers can draw political conclusions from poetry of all kinds. Good readers see all layers in a poem.
SCP: Any last thoughts?
David: On public readings: Poetry can parallel opera in its willingness to embrace exaggeration in service of emotional truth, and making a reading lively and treating it as performance is important to me. Dry readings are a disaster, no matter how celebrated the star.
On reviews: I wish for more, and more objective reviews of poetry books. Many poets want publicity statements rather than reviews of their work.
On libraries: I’ve found that public libraries here in Arizona are open to local authors donating their books, while they continue to pay for works by better known ones. The book buyers read reviews to help them decide what to order, which takes us back my previous point. Shouldn’t a library in an area be a natural place to find writing originating there? And shouldn’t the library pay for that writing?
SCP: Thanks So Much!
Tomas Tranströmer - I was happy to see him receive the Nobel award. He is a wizard with imagery. I don’t read Swedish, though I did hear him once in Tucson, and was delighted that was so honored last year. The personality of his poems survives translation.
W. S. Merwin - He hasn’t just repeated himself and has varied his approach in a long career. Merwin has always been the kind of figure whose stance against matters of war or natural destruction has been deftly woven into his overall poet-personality, and I admire that.
Ingeborg Bachmann - An Austrian poet, perhaps the first poet I came to admire. I can’t speak to the quality of available translations into English, but she wrote in many genres and the poems excel in craft and content, written as they were, in the decades following World War II in Austria. The country, to its credit, has recognized her well.
Steven Stepanchev - One of the poets who come to mind as under-appreciated. Modern in outlook, great progression of images in the poems, and a warmth in outlook that doesn’t always come with the territory.
At one time or another, I revisit many poets whose work continues to open up for me: Richard Shelton (A voice for the desert here as well as for victims of the prison system), Eugenio Montale (No, I don’t read Italian but do like William Arrowsmith’s translations, especially of Cuttlefish Bones), David Fisher (Another deserving of more attention, whose little Book of Madness from 1981 is a sad and riveting gem of a book), Marina Tsvetaeva (Even though she is almost beyond translation, her personality is overwhelming), Yannis Ritsos (His imagery and surreal vision are like nobody else’s), and the list goes on through Margaret Atwood, Charles Wright, and more.