“...the true poet and ‘forlorn observer’ of the world...”
The Bathtub Gin Interview
Mark Terrill interviewed by Christopher Harter, editor/publisher of Bathtub Gin and Pathwise Press. Originally appeared in Issue #12 (Spring/Summer 2003)
BtG: First, give us a little background. A short bio, if you will.
MT: I was born in Berkeley, California, in 1953 and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, amidst the beatniks, hippies, flower-power and the whole thing. My father is a psychologist and my mother an artist. They both graduated from Stanford, and were both relatively "hip," having fled from the strait-laced Midwest (Illinois), for the West Coast in the early fifties. They were both into Zen and Asian philosophy and art and literature, but they were still my parents. So I grew up in the midst of this weird sort of paradoxical dichotomy, with nonconformist role models like Alan Watts, Tim Leary, Ram Dass, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, etc., while at the same time being expected to pursue some kind of legitimate "career," preferably an academic or at least artistic one. But I hated the rigid structure of school from the first day to the last, and didn't even complete high school, much to the dismay of my parents. I read Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, Kerouac's On the Road, stumbled across Bukowski in the LA Free Press that my mother subscribed to, and that was it for me. I started writing poetry and first got published in John Bennett's Vagabond back in 1975. Then I was involved in the music business in San Francisco for a few years, with my own label and as manager for several bands, and was a founding member of Ugly Stick, a quasi-legendary post-punk, anti-rock band. I was also involved in filmmaking for a while, and co-directed, co-produced and co-starred in Beer Story. Eventually I went to a technical school and became a certified welder, and soon after I got my seaman's papers and shipped out in the merchant marine, eventually winding up in Hamburg, Germany, with many years of aimless, peripatetic wandering in the interim.
BtG: In Here to Learn: Remembering Paul Bowles (Green Bean Press, 2002), you mention an interest in expatriate writers when you were younger. You were born in the United States, but you've lived in Germany since the early 1980s. Do you consider yourself an expatriate writer?
MT: By default, I guess. On a ship I was working on that took me to Europe for the very first time, someone gave me a copy of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and I was seriously infected by the expatriate virus. After some lengthy stays in Lisbon and Paris, my mind was made up to give it a try.
BtG: Why do you think there is a tradition of expatriation in American literature?
MT: Everybody has their own reasons. After WWI, a lot of Americans stayed on in Europe after the war, further tempted by the strong dollar and the relative luxury it could buy. After WWII, a lot of Americans returned to Europe, especially to Paris, on the GI Bill, while others came to escape the racist, repressive quasi-fascism of America in the clutches of McCarthyism. Then there were the lone-wolf outsiders, like Paul Bowles and Paul Theroux. For some, expatriation is a political statement, for others a matter of convenience or just plain romanticism. For me personally, it was a mixture of all these. Carter was on the way out, Reagan was on the way in, and the writing was on the wall. If I still lived in America today, I'd be thinking about packing my bags right around now. Only where to go these days? The global village is shrinking daily.
BtG: There is a travel motif throughout much of your work. How have your travels influenced your writing?
MT: Immensely. Travel in the outer world is a metaphor for the inner journey. All roads lead to self-discovery. That may sound corny, but it's true, at least for me.
BtG: You've written mostly poetry, but also prose poems and now nonfiction. Is poetry your preferred form?
MT: I've also written four novels, and a collection of short stories, but I wasn't satisfied with them, although right now I'm in the midst of rewriting one of the novels and it's starting to come around. But yeah, I guess poetry or prose poems are my preferred form. The idea of getting it all onto one page is very appealing to me. It's more like a painting or a collage or a pop song; that sense of instantaneous confrontation. It's anyway about all anyone's attention span can handle these days.
BtG: Sadly, that's true. Many of your poems seem to come from direct experience. By this I mean that there is a sense of personal connection between your voice and the subjects or depictions in your poems. Is this the case?
MT: Well, up until now, everything I've published has been strictly 100% nonfiction, including all of the poetry. I was always interested in writing about what happened to me in an empirical sense, and with all the travelling, there was always plenty of material. In the last ten years, I've become a bit more sedentary, and most of the action seems to be in my head these days. All the new work reflects this. This new collection of poems, The United Colors of Death, is something else altogether, and in the novel I'm working on, Bukowski comes back from the dead to haunt Henry Chinaski, who's working as a seaman on a doomed ocean-going tugboat; half fact, half fantasy.
BtG: You work a regular job in Germany. Does this leave you much time to write? What is your method of writing…do you set aside time each day or wait for inspiration?
MT: Right now I'm unemployed, looking for a new job. They had a big shakedown at the post office, which resulted in a doubling of duties and workload, the elimination of all overtime, and a huge pay cut. So it was a matter of getting the shaft or getting out, and I opted for the latter. Fortunately, my wife works and earns enough to keep us both afloat. So right now I'm here at my desk at 7:30 in the morning seven days a week, inspiration or no inspiration. There are always letters to write, proofs to correct, books to review, etc. But even when I'm working regularly, which I hope to be doing again soon, I'm constantly in a writing mode. You can't wait for inspiration. Much of the writing that went into my last two books was originally jotted down on scraps of paper while riding up and down in the freight elevator in the post office, or while sitting in a mail truck at a red light.
BtG: You dropped out of high school and have said your education has been one of experience. I get the sense that part of this education has come from reading quite a lot. How important is reading to writing?
MT: You can't have one without the other. For me, it's a totally symbiotic, 50/50 thing. I'm constantly reading, usually five or six books at a time. No fiction whatsoever. Mainly philosophy, history, anthropology, Taoist and Buddhist texts, and much literary theory and criticism. I used to read a lot of poetry, but not any more.
BtG: Why no fiction or poetry?
MT: Seems like there's very little really good fiction or poetry being written these days, despite all that's being published. So I've just become very selective. When I do get the urge for that sort of thing, I go usually back and re-read some José Saramago or William Bronk or Ted Berrigan. It doesn't get much better than that.
BtG: How did you come to do translations of German poet Rolf Dieter Brinkmann for Sulphur River Literary Review Press (Like a Pilot: Selected Poems, 1963-1970)?
MT: Several years back, I stumbled across an article in a German newspaper about Brinkmann, whom I'd never heard of, and was immediately interested. I got what I could find that was still in print and was totally taken by his work. Just for kicks, I translated some of his poems and sent them out. They got snatched up immediately by Partisan Review, Chelsea, Talisman, Luna and others, so I figured I was onto something. Sulphur River Literary Review published 10 translations and an essay on Brinkmann that I'd written and then expressed interest in publishing a book-length collection. Right now I'm working with the German director, Harald Bergmann, who is making a full-length feature film about the last years of Brinkmann's life and his accidental death in London. Heavy stuff.
BtG: This may show ignorance on my part, but Brinkmann's writing is like no other German poetry that I've read (the simplicity of the words he used, the pop culture references, the form of the poems). Was Brinkmann that much different from his contemporaries?
MT: Brinkmann was definitely in a league of his own, and way ahead of his contemporaries. He was greatly influenced by the whole New York School of poetry, both the first and second generation, and translated Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems into German. Together with Ralf-Rainer Rygulla, Brinkmann brought out two anthologies of American writing, Acid and Silverscreen, which contained translations of Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Tom Clark, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, Bukowski, Burroughs and many others. In a way, Brinkmann was a sort of German satellite of the New York School.
BtG: How difficult was it to translate the poems? As you say in the introduction to Like a Pilot, he had a "gift for saying so much with so little; no small feat in the German language."
MT: Due to Brinkmann's being so influenced by modern American poetry, his ear was already tuned to that style of writing, which was reflected in his own work. He had a terse, economic line, and used a lot of very graphic imagery. I think that made it easy for me to translate. Sometimes I felt like I was translating Brinkmann back into English.
BtG: Given a clean slate, do you think it would be more of a challenge to translate these poems from English into German?
MT: Definitely. The German language is ill-suited for poetry. I was shocked when I first read Rilke in German. My estimation of him dropped immensely. Talk about sentimental schmaltz! But then you also have Paul Celan, whose work probably could have only been written in German, and is virtually untranslatable. Carl Weissner did a pretty good job translating Bukowski into German, yet there still aren't any decent translations of Hemingway. The more idiomatic the writing is, the harder it is to translate.
BtG: Your work is regularly published in American literary magazines and by small presses. Do you publish much work in Germany? What is the literary scene like in Germany? Are there a number of independent literary magazines and presses like in the U.S.?
MT: I've only published once here in Germany, and that was in a magazine edited and published by another expatriate American. If there's a "scene" here, it's remained totally unknown to me in all the years that I've lived here. The only other Germans I've met who were interested in poetry were primarily interested in the same sort of writing that Brinkmann was interested in; post-Beat, New York School, etc. I only know of a dozen or so German literary magazines, and they all seem terribly stiff and academic compared to what you find in America. I'd say poetry is about 40 years behind here, compared to what's happening over there. Portugal's a much better place for poetry, and much more receptive. My work has been translated and published there a number of times.
BtG: Interesting. I passed that comment along to a German friend and he agreed. Any ideas as to why Portugal is so receptive to poetry? Any other countries outside the U.S. that you'd say the same for?
MT: Luis de Camoëns and Fernando Pessoa paved the way for poetry in Portugal, and Pessoa's work still holds up well today. Maybe it's a matter of temperament, but I think the Portuguese may be more sensitized than the Germans. Every country has its poetry "scene," some more developed and dynamic than others. In America, poetry reached a state of critical mass in the late fifties and early sixties, around the time that Don Allen's anthology came out, The New American Poetry. Then there were several quantum leaps via the New York School, Black Mountain, the Beats and Language writing, not to mention Bukowski, who helped make poetry the plebian sort of thing it's become in America today. But altogether, that represents a lot of progress in a relatively short time, which I think is difficult for older cultures and older languages to replicate. Rattling the cage of the status quo in a relatively young country like America is one thing, but in places like Europe or Asia, the cultural and historical burden is immense and incredibly static.
BtG: Tell us a little about the forthcoming collection from Pathwise Press, The United Colors of Death.
MT: There isn't much to say. Those poems just started coming to me one day, usually when I woke up in the morning. Sometimes they were almost complete. I had to jump out of bed and get to my desk to get them down before they got pushed aside by all the usual quotidian bullshit. Other times they came to me in the midst of work, or driving around, or whatever. It was a lot like what Jack Spicer was talking about with his "dictation." Then one day they stopped coming and I knew the book was finished. They definitely came from somewhere "outside," in the true sense of what Spicer meant.
BtG: In Colors there is a theme of God, Death and Life, but you combine philosophy and humor in examining these. Is that your nature?
MT: That's a hell of a question. I guess I'd have to say yes.