There is no need for you to leave the house. Stay at your table and listen. Don’t even listen, just wait. Don’t even wait, be completely quiet and alone. The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it can’t do otherwise; in raptures it will writhe before you.  —Kafka, Notebooks

 

Alex Stein: What do you think is “the world” of which Kafka writes? What do you make of what seems to be the slightly eroticized imagery with which it concludes? Could one call this aphorism pure sublimation? Simply the dream of an impotent? Where does one draw the line in looking to literary figures for answers or sustenance?

I could not decipher the living riddle of my body
put it to sleep when it hungered, and overfed it
when time came to dream

I nearly choked on the forked tongue of my spirit
between the real and the ideal, rejecting the one
and rejected by the other

I still have not mastered that art of storm-riding
without ears to apprehend howling winds
or eyes for rolling waves

Always the weather catches me unawares, baffled
by maps, compass, stars and the entire apparatus
of bearings or warning signals

Clutching at driftwood, eyes screwed shut, I tremble
hoping the unhinged night will pass and I remember
how once I shielded my flame.

 

illustrator: John Tillson

illustrator: John Tillson

 

Hello there. So, previously, you’ve composed a book of aphorisms, and just last year you put out a collection of essays. Why poetry, now?

Good question. I suspect that words have a life of their own and ultimately choose the form they want to address the world in. That is to say, ideas dress themselves… I’m just the helpless tailor.

 

What would you say the themes are in your Fever Dreams?

Hmm, themes? Time, Memory, Longing, Home (in this case, Egypt), Language, Love, Death and the tensions between Body and Spirit. *Laughing* I guess that just about covers everything. More or less the same heavies we all wrestle with, and certainly themes that I’d tackled differently in my previous books of aphorisms and essays.

 

Would you say that makes your poetry redundant to a reader of your previous work?

Well, just because you can hear echoes of the same concerns doesn’t mean that I treat them in a similar manner. Obviously I can say things in a poem in particular ways that I cannot quite pull off in an essay, or even an aphorism. But, it’s not like I’m exactly free to choose new obsessions.

 

How about the sequence of the poems in this collection, is there any logic behind it?

Yes. Is it rational? No. It’s just where the pieces fell in place, I guess, after a bit of pushing and pulling… from imperceptible magnets, you could say.

 

Hmmm.. more on those magnets, if you please. Can you elaborate a little on the forces that pull your poetry together?

I’m not quite sure, but I can try… Basically, I think they clustered around seasons of my being. Does that make any sense? Okay, literally, I remember laying all the poems out on a hotel bed, somewhere – could’ve been New Jersey, could’ve been San Fran- and… first there were Words (which I suppose corresponds to Mind) then came Heart, then Spirit.

 

What do you hope to achieve with these poems? What do you want your readers to walk away with?

I was afraid of a question like that, so I made sure to have a couple quotes handy. Here’s one from my favorite (living) novelist, John Banville. “This is what good art does. It takes a pebble in the road, or a human being, and it concentrates on them until they begin to glow. I think the concept and the notion of blushing is very important in art, and in my kind of art. You know, the artist concentrates on the detail of the object until it blushes in the way the love object blushes when a lover gazes at it with that particular intense gaze. That is what art should do. It should make the world blush and give up its secrets.”

 

Making the world blush and surrender its secrets… that’s ambitious, and very seductive. Okay, how about you? What have you taken out of the experience of writing this book?

You’re not letting up, are you? *Smiling, long pause* Well, I can sense something shifting… For as far back as I’ve thought of myself as being a writer, I’ve revered the life of the mind, lived for and through it. You see, I’m analytical by nature and so was naturally drawn to philosophy… *Shifting in seat quite a bit; then another long pause* I allowed myself to nearly worship the rational, and language… *Trailing off, sheepish smile*

 

[We sit in silence for some time. The author gets up and returns with a flask, which he sips silently, thoughtfully. Sighing deeply, he begins again, nearly five unnerving minutes later]

Well, frankly, I’m not quite as enchanted with the power of words, or the tyranny of the mind… I find that I’m more susceptible to intuition and the spirit. *Sharp swig from his flask and, more animated now, he gets up to pronounce, quite gleefully* Even in poetry, I’m beginning to realize only a fraction of a poem’s power resides in the words; the remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them!

 

[Now, the author, presumably a little tipsy, is pacing about the room, restlessly. He steps out into the adjacent garden and, when he returns to his seat shortly, he’s more subdued.]

To put it bluntly, something I’m striving for is… *pregnant pause* to get words to honor Silence, and echo it. *He flashes a friendly, somewhat maniacal grin* Crazy, self-defeating perhaps. But a worthy pursuit, I think, in that it purifies language, asking it to sound such depths and essences.

 

[Upon the author’s request, we adjourn to a local bar. No sooner are we seated, he begins]

Slippery territory, I know, I know, but I think this is what Rilke meant when he referred to poems as experiences. Or you could call them ‘excavations’… something of the mysticism that religious scholar, Karen Armstrong alludes to in this marvelous quote: “Our theology,” she says “should be like poetry…. A poet spends a great deal of time listening to his unconscious, and slowly calling up a poem word by word, phrase by phrase, until something beautiful is brought forth into the world that changes people’s perceptions….”

 

[Much as I’m enjoying this, as interlocutor I feel it is my task to, at least attempt, and reclaim the reins. So, halfway into my first stiff drink, I venture: “I’m really enjoying this… But, as interlocutor I feel it is my task to, at least attempt, and reclaim the reins…”]

Please, do. *He nods indulgently, bemused by my words*

 

Okay, so, let me see if I have this right. Mind is suspect; words, too; and echoing silence is what is sought… What does that leave us? Is Beauty also relegated to a frivolous concern?

On the contrary. *He’s beaming now, as if I’d told a rather clever joke* I believe that the skin of things, the world of appearances, is of some consequence… I’m actually becoming quite obsessed with Aesthetics, lately. I think Beauty, past a superficial concern is quite important and that contemplating it makes us… *He’s using his hands now, massaging the air* Makes us finer somehow…morally… spiritually. *Softly, he adds* Beauty
is
a gateway to the Eternal and Divine.

[He pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper, crowded with notes, more than a few lines highlighted] Here’s a Hafiz quote that speaks me better than myself: “The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.” [And, with that he gets up, and marches in the direction of the restroom. I order a couple of coffees for the both of us. The author is not surprised in the least to find these. He adds sugar and cream, liberally, to his cup.]

[I clear my throat, and gingerly proceed]

 

Back to Fever Dreams. The illustrations work quite well. Were you afraid, at any point, they might detract from the images your poems conjure..

That’s a great compliment, that my poems conjure images for you. It’s nice when poems create visuals like that, or have their own in-built music. It means they’re being experienced more fully, and more likely to be remembered, too!

I really lucked out with John Tillson, the illustrator – another passionate student of philosophy. He’s quite – how do you put it – sensitive to my hallucinations, you could say. He basically took a look at the manuscript and spontaneously combusted into the drawings that you see throughout. I’ve also been fortunate to collaborate with a Belgian filmmaker and composer, Swoon, another (Fever) dream-interpreter, you could say!

Two of the short films Swoon made (inspired by poems in this collection, ‘Clouds’ and ‘Unentitled’ were shown in Festivals this year – one in the US, and another in Croatia. While another video, based on my poem ‘Words’ was aired on national television (Belgium) this summer, as part of a contest called ‘De Canvasminuut’. [The crumpled sheet is out, again, and he breathlessly dictates to me a website] You can see these sometimes surreal collaborations online

I feel privileged to be able to collaborate with gifted fellow artists, including film maker Tim Pieraccini, whose film for my poem ‘If’ was shown at an art gallery in Brighton (UK) last month. I really find these collaborations breathe a new life into the poetry… and they allow my words to visit places I’ve not been to yet! [Before I can ask another question, he sighs, and adds, almost wistfully:] You know, I’m an odd bird -I didn’t really think collaborations were possible. They’re quite novel to me, really. I always viewed writing as such a terribly private matter that I never thought I could ‘play seriously’ with another… But, I’m finding I can… with sympathetic souls. By the time they pick my work up, I’m already done. And, if the basic trust is there, it can be enlightening, for me at any rate, to see how an artist translates my work into another medium.

 

Well, I’m happy for you, to have that breakthrough. I feel like we covered a lot of ground here. Looking back, at this stage of your career, what would you say you’re most proud of?

Kind of you to ask. One of the highlights of the past year or so has been receiving emails from around a dozen or so high school students (from around the US) who’ve chosen to do reports or presentation on my poems, and approach me with questions, etc… Kids are amazing, generally speaking, and it’s pretty remarkable to experience their awakening to literature, those sparks of curiosity, and somehow be able to kindle that flame. For some, obviously it’s just an assignment or a fling with language but, for a precious few, it’s more: the beginning of a life-long romance!

Funny thing is, the kids don’t always ‘understand’ the poems – again, on a rational, conscious level. Yet these poems still reach them, move them, pre-words or past words. Something in their own depths stirs… That’s why I’ve always liked that Eliot line about not having to understand a poem to appreciate it.

And, while I’m bragging, might I be permitted two more recent highlights? [I’m ordering the check at this point, and he does not wait for me to answer. I decide to keep the tape recorder running anyhow, as I see my next appointment has been cancelled]. Another great honor *he continues, proudly* has been having a poem of mine, ‘What do animals dreams?’ chosen for a widely-used US college textbook, Literature: an Introduction to Reading and Writing.

As a young one, and till this day, I regarded books as a kind of life support machine -stretched across space and time. I’m greatly indebted to a band of intimate strangers, writers and poets, who altered my mental-emotional landscape, and grateful to be able to give back, somehow.

And then this year… *Here the author grows solemn* I had the honor of being chosen as a juror for the 2012 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. After the Nobel prize for literature, the Neustadt is generally considered the most prestigious international literary prize. So, it’s a tremendous privilege at this stage of my writing career to be one of nine jurors who get to be part of the decision making process at this level…

 

Congratulations, good for you! Well, I think that’s a wrap. Wait – how about forthcoming projects? Maybe, in just one line or two?

Hah! Now that I’ve shaken a few fruits off my tree, I’m asking myself the same question, what’s next? More poetry, I suppose. But, before that, a spot of literary soul-gazing. Into the souls of my Masters, as a way of saying: Thank you, and goodbye. I mean people like Nietzsche, Rilke, Kafka, Kierkegaard, Baudelaire. The ones who did me in as a late teen and from whom I’m still recovering. So, the idea is to put out a book of conversations with Alex Stein, where we explore the notion of The Artist as Mystic. *in sotto voce* A couple of these mad talks are already out in Agni, if you care to take a peek.

 

I’ll be on the lookout. [I say, getting up and extending my hand.] Thank you for this… dizzying conversation! Any last words? [I hold the door open for both of us, and linger]

No, thank you, for indulging me, and enduring this artist’s metaphysics. *He bows, gravely.*