Kirpal Gordon: In perusing your twelve titles published by Asylum Arts — Revagations [begun 1966], The Beak Doctor, Accidental Monsters, Umbra, The Catwalk Watch, Bartholomew Fair, The Smoking Mirror, Enigmas, The Golem Triptych, Catafalques, Decompositions, Ghost Light [completed 1994] — I sense there's some back story between 1966, the earliest date, and 1994, the latest. Tell us about your latest publications, Umbra, just out from Asylum Arts Press, and Earthworks, published in 2008 by Six Gallery Press.
Eric Basso: My seventh collection of poems, Earthworks, took twelve years to complete. I was beginning to burn out when I wrote the first section, "A New Shade of Gray," then gray went to black. I burnt out completely. Didn't write a word for five years. I was also taking care of my mother, who'd fallen ill with Parkinson's disease, twenty-four hours a day for six years. After her death, I began to crawl back into poetry, and finished the rest of the book in three years. I left the poems in chronological order, so the reader can follow my descent into the void and my climb out. Before the burn-out, I'd been prolific. Maybe I'd just run out of words, who knows? In December 2010, I completed a new collection, Barbarous Radiates, which took a little over two and a half years to write. I'm back.
KG: What are you working on now?
EB: A new collection of poems, Palimpsest.
KG: Kirkus Reviews wrote this about your poetry: "A poetry of celestial mechanics, mysteries that are still, and forever, unfolding. Not a barren defiance, Basso's vision becomes a fruitful collaboration with the cosmos in the manner of the Navajo shaman who each dawn helps sing the wondrous into existence." And Samuel Appelbaum, reviewing the entire body of your poetic work in Rain Taxi, writes, "Eric Basso has reconfirmed the pattern of prodigious visionary accomplishment he began more than twenty-five years ago. . . . Through thousands of night shifts, Basso has done the kind of heavy lifting most of our more accessible, celebrated poets never had the courage to do in the first place. . . . Basso explores an eerie, uncharted realm, because that is where those who are absent, and their artifacts, are buried. Having harnessed his compulsiveness in the service of qualitative production, Eric Basso has become prolific in the most useful sense." Do you have a favorite poem in Earthworks that I might quote, especially one that best represents the thesis/core/heart of the collection?
EB: There are several. Just off the top of my head, "Dark Crawling" comes to mind.
dark crawling begins
an escape from bad dreams
and an even worse reality
animal warmth remains
but nothing more
just to slip off
all that is needed
you feel the air
tingling the hairs
on your body
the poem hangs in midair
the exercise you take up
at night without wanting to
new routine of an old age
you'll never learn to live with
a coldness under your fingers
it's marble from a country
that you will never see
from a torment
yet to be named
drunk or sober you are
committed to the passionless
exploration of what lies
beyond the pillow and
the night sweat
a swelling mud turns
to crust beneath you
the rumpitous monster
grins but tells nothing
of what it knows
still a long space to crawl
across this darkness
a light to imagine
at the very end
that won't be there
September 20, 2005
EB: That pretty much takes you into the heart of the process.
KG: What is "rumpitous?" A "rumpitous monster"?
EB: I made it up.
KG: Rhymes with "bumpitous."
EB: I wouldn't want to give the impression that all the poems are this grim. Most are not. The cycle about Mr. Abattoria and his quest for an elusive, mysterious woman is often quite funny, in a twisted way.
KG: Is Mr. Abattoria you?
EB: No. When I wrote the poems, I became Abattoria.
KG: Why not read your favorite Abattoria poem?
EB: It's a bit long.
KG: We have time.
the spinach on the grill
he didn't want to eat it
refused point blank to sink
the tip of a tusk in
this was when he noticed
the waiter had dwindled
the man was slowly sinking
legs puddling out of trousers
Mr Abattoria hadn't been
in the city for long when
he began to hear rumors
of the intimate herrings
they don't resemble fish
the night clerk advised him
adding that the management
urged residents to avoid the stairs
spring being slow to come
love was not in bloom
but the promise of love lingered
in expectation of the herrings
Mr Abattoria combed his hair
and plucked his eyebrows waiting
for an intimate herring to appear
it could assume any form
that much he knew from
the lady who changed the bed
its properties were self-refuting yet
no one had witnessed a metamorphosis
what made these herrings intimate
was their overwhelming desire for
close contact with the human body
thus they were impossible to console
prowling the marina Mr Abattoria
wondered how dangerous it would be
to discover himself in the presence
of an intimate herring
the harbor patrol dragged the bay
for bodies but dredged up only
a few small foreign coins
a suitcase and a tub
an engine hummed in the alley
it was still winter and not
a mosquito to be seen as
a cloud dimmed the moon
intimate herrings were
the blind seekers
the dream flesh warmed
February 17, 2005
KG: Another elusive hunt for love.
KG: Any other poem in the collection that you'd say was representative?
it steps out from behind the mirror
politely asks you to climb onto its back
then you're off at a scampering gallop
riding the tin gorilla past hope and fear
past the lonely place where punishment
peels the glove from its frozen fingers
these shattered bricks cradle
the spume of an aching sky
through dreamless nights
a surrender to false horizons
to gigantic arches of mud and mist
as the tin gorilla gallops past
the clatter of its spiked fur
raises a terrible din and as you cling
to its shoulders you shut your eyes
praying this is not the endless
nightmare of the life after death
but the tin gorilla gallops on
March 20, 2004
EB: I've spent twenty years riding the tin gorilla.
KG: Family obligations, deaths, illnesses.
EB: Mmmm. It kept me out of the loop.
KG: The literary loop.
EB: I lost touch with everything. The crowning irony is that twelve of my books were published during this time. Books I'd written years, sometimes decades, before. And I had no time to, well, enjoy it. I didn't even have time to read.
KG: So, the poems in Earthworks are, in some sense, a record of this.
EB: Some, like the ones I just read, are. Others carry forward the exploration I'd begun when I was nineteen.
KG: Which brings us to Umbra, your second collection of poems, just out from Asylum Arts Press. Why did it wait so long to see the light of day?
EB: I wanted to hold in reserve at least one of the books I wrote in my twenties to be published when I was in my sixties. Umbra was the most logical choice. It's a large, experimental collection, a revealing transition between my first collection, Accidental Monsters, and my third, The Catwalk Watch.
KG: Those early poems are surprisingly different from your later work. To create context, why not contrast a poem from Umbra with the two poems you read from Earthworks?
with the last
places a spi-
der would not
want to touch
with its webs
once you have
begun to fall
through a few
you let go of
the room that
you are awake
December 18, 1976
KG: Interesting line breaks, especially the second line with spider cut in half! The whole book is columnar. Though the lines are not syllabic, they chisel a tombstone effect on the page. The lines, "to fall / through a few / black mirages," might be the theme of Umbra. Throughout the book the historical reflects the personal, mixes with the natural and connects with the mythical.
EB: I began to write poetry relatively late, and I just plunged in. Accidental Monsters, a sizable collection, was written in six months.
KG: Every work is marked at the bottom with a completion date. Many of the events and characters you write about are so terrifically and terrifyingly interworldly that recording the moment you wrote it feels like an ironic touch.
EB: The dates of composition fix a moment in time — an epiphany, if you like. I've always included them in my books. I'm far from the first to do it. An awful lot of my poems were dictated into a tape recorder, in the middle of the night, while I was trying to get to sleep. My other writing — fiction, drama, criticism — was always planned out in detail, before composition began. Poems are different. For the most part, you wait for them to come.