Franz Douskey has published in Rolling Stone, the Nation, New York Quarterly, The New Yorker, and Las Vegas Life. His readings and travels with such notables as James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg, Ai, Charles Bukowski and F. D. Reeve are legendary. Some of his writing has been performed by Frederica Von Stade of the Metropolitan Opera Company, The Yale Glee Club and The Heaths. Along with writing, Franz Douskey produces radio shows for WQUN, Quinnipiac University, and hides out with the horses at Giant Valley Farm.
The following interview took place via email and the poems below are reprinted from West of Midnight: New and Selected Poems with permission of the author.
Okla Elliott: A thought that returns to me regularly is that in the table-of-contents of a journal, prose is broken up into fiction and nonfiction, and a lot of people are intensely serious about that distinction. Poetry, however, is not divided in such a way, so readers are left to assume whatever they prefer about a poem’s factual status. Of course, it’s the metaphor and joy of invention that finally carries all writing, no matter its genre or relationship to historical fact, but, that said, I think poems by war veterans or abuse victims or even highly paid lawyers that depict their lives as accurately as possible might gain something by being read as aesthetic depictions of real events. I bring all this up because I get the sense that many of your poems would be classified as creative-nonfiction-in-verse, if we bothered to make this sort of distinction for poetry. I am thinking particularly of your poems “Remembering James Dickey,” “Eric,” “Burning the Gypsies,” and others. Could you speak a bit about how your personal experience and travels or historical facts have informed the content (or even the form) of your poetry?
Franz Douskey: Personal experience and travel are strong forces of my writing. I like being there. About “Remembering James Dickey”… We got to know each other during the New York Quarterly annual Poetry Dinners at the Paris Hotel. We stumbled through that very dignified place often enough that the staff got to know us and would lead us safely away from their guests to preserve the hotel’s reputation. “Eric” was a student. One of those who came around to “take” my classes even when he hadn’t signed up. I still recall that phone call. “Burning the Gypsies” isn’t from direct experience, but the result of three separate forces that came together: my research of the Holocaust, my books of Gypsy life and lore, and Hell, I’m part Hungarian. Disturbing what we do to each other. Not every experience turns into poetry, but I find it difficult to be creative, inventive, etc. Enough extraordinary people and events have been part of my life that I seldom look inside. There is a Delphic maxim often ascribed to Socrates, “Know thyself.” I have no interest in knowing myself. What a dull book that would be.
OE: What got you started on poetry? And what do you think helped you develop most as a poet?
FD: Reading Kenneth Patchen, both prose and poetry, got me started writing. What came out was poetry. What helped develop my writing was travel. When I was excited by an author’s work, I sought out his and her books and, then sought them out. I visited Kenneth and Miriam Patchen often at 2340 Sierra Court. I was the only visitor allowed in the house, except for Kenneth’s dentist. Travel and reading caused me to visit Galway Kinnell, in Seattle, Henry Miller, at Big Sir, George Hitchcock, in Santa Cruz, and while living in Tucson I was strongly impressed by the poetry of Richard Shelton. I met a lot of writers there, including Raymond Carver, John Weston and Charles Bukowski. I traveled to several places, including New Orleans, with Bukowski, Gypsy Lou and Jon Webb, Bukowski’s first publishers (LouJon Press).
As I published more often, I traveled and did readings with Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, William Packard, Allen Ginsberg and F. D. Reeve. Some of the Ginsberg-Douskey readings are in the Ginsberg Archive, at Stanford University, in Palo Alto. So I’d have to say, reading, traveling and getting to know the writers was a strong foundation.
OE: What advice might you give young poets today?
FD: Me give advice? First thing that comes to mind is: Why care what other people think? Self censorship is deadly for every human, and that goes triple for writers and especially poets. One time in a stop over at O’Hare, the plane attendant announced that our ground time would be brief Brilliant. How right she was and is. We don’t have forever. These bones are rented and we don’t know when the lease is up. Write, write, write, then revise, leave the work alone, go back and reread it, revise, revise and revise, knowing that revising is every bit a part of the creative process as writing down those original sparks. Go to readings, leave work early, travel, put yourself in weird experiences, even dangerous ones as long as you have an escape plan. Read a few writers, but make certain that you don’t fall in love with their style. Constantly become yourself. Leave the bough. Take on life and leave all blame behind. What you think and how you write are two elements uniquely you. And never take advice from anyone.
things move quickly here
the roads are mined
they have trucks just to carry
I miss you a minute ago
I was smoking and out of the corner
of my eye I thought I saw your head
on my pillow I guess I’m losing
death scares me
I’ve never seen so much of it
bodies on the roads
blood seeps through shirts and blouses
heads leak and mouths eat dirt
and death could come now
while I smoke and listen to music
anyone might be the enemy
it is scary
you should see the faces of the living
worse than the dead
ten years ago it was different
now we are traveling
into something cold and dark
sometimes I think I’ll never see you–
if I get shot up
they’ll send what’s left in an empty glove
waving goodbye like a flag
Cat Dying of Cancer
too sick to do anything else
she twists in a chair to lick herself –
this is strange
because she has cancer
of the tongue
I guess it’s clean but I don’t let her lick me
one night I’ll turn around and see nothing in
but me in my white robe leaning over her
her tongue will’ve fallen out and slid behind
one day my sister will come over with her
and the one who searches the furniture for
will pull out a piece of dried fruit
only it’ll be tongue of cat
as is his habit he’ll probably eat it
next time his granddaddy asks him
cat got your tongue? only you and I will know
First of all, there are the demented
fritillaries and raucous hummingbirds.
Yesterday Rimbaud came over to watch
Fantasy Island. His cough hasn’t improved,
still he won’t stop smoking.
It is difficult here. We hardly see
anyone. The night is lacerated by downpours
of shadows, a violent silence wings down
from the vertiginous, embroidered stars.
There are massive snails in the woods.
Trees are toothpicks in their jaws.
We lose old friends every day. Some of us,
especially Camus and Char, wonder if this
is heaven or hell. Celine says
it’s Paris, after the war.
Our wives are still on the other side,
wearing satins and sachets,
a minimal sign of virtue.
Did I tell you about the bats? Last year
only five people lived to tell about them.
Then there are the parties, equally deadly,
that one is expected to attend. Verlaine
threw up a week ago, and he still hasn’t
been able to eat anything but Wheatena.
Eluard hasn’t gotten over dying. He says
he wasn’t ready. He has something that
would clear his reputation. He has sent
a letter of protest to God,
the true originator of surrealism.
Meanwhile, any hope for hypogeous
I once said, The future is never.
I didn’t know how right I’d be.