Have you ever had a stranger threaten to "reach across this table, grab you by your little neck and choke the life out of you…"? Well I have, when a few weeks ago I sat down to talk with poet and editor Ānanda Selah Ösel. Ānanda is one of the many poets who have been successful in the world of online publishing both as a writer and publisher. This is extraordinary because Ānanda is, to put it nicely, peculiar. Ösel edits and publishes a magazine called the CommonLine Project, which was founded in 2007 and has published some of the most promising names in contemporary poetry including David LaBounty, Rob Plath, New York-based author Tony O'Neill and national slam champion Anis Mojgani. The magazine seems to function fairly well for a magazine that is run by what seems to be an eccentric detached man. However, despite Ānanda's aloofness he seems to be fairly adept at criticizing the beliefs and practices of those around him.
Ösel has been hyper-critical of light verse poetry and spoken word alike and seems to have a general dislike for much of the literary world if not the general population. These critical tendencies are reflected in Ösel's poetry and as more and more people begin to read his work you have to ask yourself if he's the next poetry genius or just a nutcase with a pencil. Those who I've talked with seem to be split on the issue of his sanity but after actually meeting him I have to admit that he seems ready for either one.
Ali N. Marcus: As an editor / publisher of an online journal do you think that the online magazine will eventually replace the conventional one?
Ānanda Selah Ösel: I hope not. I like to read print. Computer screens hurt my eyes. You can't read your favorite online journal in the bathtub, which is a problem for me. Another thing is that people like to have books around. It makes them feel smart. It gives them an abhorrent sense of haughtiness. Although, I'm sure "they" don't see it that way.
ANM: Who benefits the most from these journals and why are there so many?
ĀSÖ: I can say the poetry itself does not benefit. However, the bad poet does benefit because they can submit there work with ease to hundreds of places at once, thus increasing the chance that a publisher with equally bad taste will read and accept it for publication. The underground poet also benefits, and that's a good thing. The conventional presses would never publish anything I write because it's too rough for them. I don't mean too good. I mean to simple. I don't write with many big pretty words, I don't use much metaphor. I curse in my poems and misuse commas. The big presses don't really like that; hell even the small press frowns on that sometimes. But, that's how I really am in my everyday life, so if you ask me my poetry is more pure than what you'll find in the "Reviews". I could fancy it up; clean up the subject matter and language but I won't because I don't want to. You have to do what you want in life. Do what makes you happy even if it makes others unhappy. I look at writing poems the same way.
ANM: Is there really such a thing as bad poetry? Isn't the poem a subjective art?
ĀSÖ: First, yes, there is bad poetry, and plenty of it. The limits of subjectivity, like everything else, can only be pushed so far until they break. See, what you have to realize about subjectivity is that it's subjective. Now, I'm just your average idiot with a pencil but I know that impressive writing starts with the writer. Pretty profound right? A great poem is a great poem because that's what it is. Anyone, bricklayers, mechanics, rapists, dishwashers, even the idiots can write something great, but few do. The ones who can write exceptionally on a constant basis are the great writers. The rest of us either flow in and out of eminence or don't flow at all.
ANM: When you first started writing poetry, what was your intention?
ĀSÖ: My intention was to spew my insides outside. At first I did it for myself; then I thought that some of it was as good as the stuff I was reading in books so I showed it around and others said it was pretty good, after that I started publishing it. I can't say it's all been worth it though. It takes up a lot of my time. If I wasn't editing this magazine and working on my own poetry all the time I could have become something real. I could have fought in a war, or learned the tango, or maybe robbed a few banks and killed some people, who knows; it's all about the route you chose.
ANM: So your telling me that you think that robbing banks and hurting others has the same value as writing poetry?
ĀSÖ: I'm telling you what you don't want to hear. There is a lot of dishonesty and self-posturing in writing, especially in poetry. Killing a man, while it may be worse overall is far more honest. If you pick the right man you might even end up making the world a better place. It's going to take a lot more poetry than it would guns to turn your average rapist into a law abiding citizen.
ANM: I do not agree in the least. Don't you think that the lives of everyday people are worth more? Can't poetry play a positive role in people's lives? Can't it change the way the world works?
ĀSÖ: The everyday person is a complacent sloth. The everyday person has fashioned the world we live in, and look how that's turned out. People like to live in this fairly tale where the "people" are the blameless good ones and the "other people" are the corrupt bad ones. You can't blame the government or the law makers or anyone in power for the domestic shit we're in, for the wars we're being defeated in, or for the shape the planet is in. You have to blame everyone. The masses don't care to do anything about anything. This country has created a system which rewards you if you stay out of the way and keep quiet. It rewards you with credit cards, zero down – pay later, and even your own freedom. How about I reach across this table, grab you by your little neck and choke the life out of you! Do you think you could stop me? Do you think that these people in here will help you? There are four men in here right now and I bet if I started having my way with you they would all just stand around and watch. Sure, they might call the police but I could kill you before the police got here. Do you think all these people in here want to see you dead? Of course not. They just don't want to get hurt as well, they don't want to get involved, they don't want to step out and take a chance, and they don't want to muss their hair. It is not likely that poetry can help the state of affairs we're in. Besides, people don't read poetry anyway. It's something that the "intellectuals" do and that's fine but poetry is not going to change anything by itself.
ANM: Ok fine. I agree. But surely poetry has its place.
ĀSÖ: So you've been enlightened then? Of course, I barely know what I'm speaking about so I have no idea how I could enlighten you. But yes, poetry has its place. I'm not saying that it doesn't. It can make a little difference. It can be a stepping stone to something else, it can be inspiring and it can be an outlet. But let's not go overboard and say that poetry can dismantle the prison industrial complex, the military industrial complex or even your apartment complex. It has limits. It has ups and downs.
ANM: There is just one thing I'm wondering. With all that you've said and written about the literary masses why are you continuing to involve yourself in that world?
ĀSÖ: I'm not involved in the poetry game. I'm a writer of poems because that's what I like to do. All the public and private posturing of the in-group turns me off. I don't want to be a part of that. That's why pseudonyms are used. That's why people view poets the way they do. That's why I've never entered the spoken word scene even though there are good poets there. I realized that the spoken word game is flush with parasites and self worship and I don't want anything to do with it. Don't be fooled, there is a circle, a circle that tries to suck you in, make you dance for the almighty approval, the applause, the Myspace friends; I steer clear of it because it can and will eat your soul up.
ANM: So it's your position that conformity is a bad thing? Don't you think it can be a good thing?
ĀSÖ: It can be a good thing if your goal is to not get noticed, but the point is that most of the time you don't have a choice. I know plenty of homosexuals, blacks, and women who consider themselves part of the Christian faith. The bible is one of the most homophobic, racist, and anti-woman books every written. They've assimilated into the majority religion even though it explicitly humiliates them. How does something like that happen? I don't think they've read the text in an academic way and then just decided "oh ok sounds fine - I'm a Christian now." They've been in indoctrinated at an early age or somehow their minds have been whitewashed by the need to conform. Don't you think it's strange to see a black man putting his stock in the bible when it explicitly condones slavery? I do. That's how strong conformity is. It breaks through all rational barriers and encourages you to become a cog in the wheel in idiocy. It encourages you to snub logic and go along with things that make no sense at all. If you conform to the majority's belief system you hardly have to think for yourself at all. Ask your average Christian to synopsize the book of Zechariah for you and you'll find they haven't the slightest idea what it says, let alone what it means, they might not even know what synopsize means. I find it frightening that their hypocrisy knows no limits but that's just the way it is I guess; most everyone is walking around with the nom de plume of the masses.
ANM: So have you ever used a nom de plume?
ĀSÖ: Yeah, I have, but only for my writing. I've used the name Black as sort of an anti-pseudonym and then at some point I tacked on Smith just to be ambiguous while at the same time adopting the clever name of Black Smith.
ANM: You've said that your poems are almost completely autobiographical. Do you feel somewhat vulnerable knowing that so much of your life in displayed in a public space?
ĀSÖ: I've written and said things that have caused trouble for me. Most of the time it's not anything I've written about myself that gets me in the shit but what I've written about others, especially those I don't care for but still have to see on a pretty frequent basis. I try not to publish anything that is super self-critical for obvious reasons. You might not guess it by reading my work but I'm pretty introspective. I wouldn't be willing or able to denounce certain things and people in a public forum without first attacking my own personal faults in private and sometimes public. You have to be willing to critique and be critiqued; otherwise we'll all drown in a mass a private self pity and public pompousness.
ANM: Does your view of the world have to do with your upbringing or something else?
ĀSÖ: Next Question.
ANM: Well that's about all I have for you. Do you have anything you want to add?
ĀSÖ: Of course not.
Read more of Ali's interview with Ānanda at Word Riot, or check out Ananda-Osel.com and The CommonLine Project.
Ali N. Marcus is a songwriter and aspiring journalist. She is from the east coast but now lives in Seattle, Washington.