Two interviews with A.D.Winans
An Interview With A.D. Winans
Interview with A.D. Winans
By Terry Reis KennedyKennedy: You were born and raised in San Francisco, the city of Saint Francis of Assisi who loved and sheltered the poor and the weak, not just animals as legend tells, but everyone from abandoned babies to winos and prostitutes. Have you any connection to the saint; you know, do you feel his spirit hovers over the city influencing it in anyway?Winans: I guess you could say that I feel his spirit in that my own poetry reflects the condition and circumstances of the “poor and the weak.” San Francisco is a unique city. The mayor and Board of Supervisors refuse to cooperate with Federal Law Enforcement Agencies who have been conducting raids on suspected illegal immigrants in the city. And in keeping with the long established tradition of sanctuary, the churches here continue to offer them safe haven. And let’s not forget those animals. Each year in San Francisco’s North Beach we have an annual blessing of the animals.
Kennedy: Your work has always interested me, engaged me, because it feels so spontaneous, not in the least contrived. Do you, in fact, ever write in forms, you know—Villanelles, Sestinas—the whole Babette Deutch collection of styles?
Winans: First let me say that I have never said I was a poet. In my opinion the word poet has largely lost its meaning. Take a look at My Space (on the Internet) and you'll find anyone and everyone claiming to be a poet. And there are some God-awful words there clothed in the label of poetry. Then you have the Business Poets who have cheapened the name even further. And then there are the poetry hustlers. The answer to your question is a resounding NO. I don't write in forms. When I sit down to write a poem it is not with any conscious effort on my part to write in any particular format. My poems have always been spontaneous and written in a language accessible to the average Joe on the street. I write when the demons tell me to write. You might say I'm a caretaker for the strange mutterings that rattle around inside my head.
Kennedy: What is a business poet?
Winans: A business poet is a poet who wants to make a career out of poetry. Knowing that poetry doesn't sell, he or she becomes a professional hustler. They are skilled in the art of grant writing and ass kissing, especially in kissing ass. They trade favors with each other as if poems were trading cards to be put up on E-Bay and auctioned off to the highest bidder. A real poet writes because he has to write and not with the idea of becoming a media darling. Poetry is not money. Poetry is a vision, a living thing. A real poet is like a glassmaker spinning his or her magic. Most Academics write for each other, although there are some exceptions. And the Language School Poets are so caught up in trying to create the perfect line that they don't realize what they are producing are still- born children. The words may be perfectly arranged, but they lie lifeless on the page, void of any resemblance to flesh and blood.
Kennedy: In such a competitive contemporary poetry scene, “Po Biz,” as the late Anne Sexton referred to it, how have you managed to retain so many good relationships with your colleagues?
Winans: I don't really have any colleagues, not in the true sense of the word. I find most poets boring people to be around and worse yet are the ego monsters that walk around with a capital "P" on their foreheads. I do have many friends who happen to be poets, but they are my friends for reasons other than being poets. Compared to most poets in the literary community, I am pretty much a recluse, but there are a good number of poets out there who I do like and respect. I also have a fair share of enemies who seem to attack me without having the slightest idea of who I am or where I am coming from. I used to respond to their attacks, but found I was only playing into their hands.
This is what they want. Most of them can't write a decent poem themselves, so they get their names in print by attacking others who have paid their dues. I recall Bukowski telling me, “I knew I was getting there when the attacks started to come.”
Kennedy: How would you describe your life quest? In other words, do you see yourself as a man on a journey toward something beyond the known reality?
Winans: I live in the here and now, although I sometimes travel back in time, mainly to see what mistakes I have made and can learn from. I haven't given much thought to anything beyond the immediate. I believe the ultimate search is the search within yourself, within your own being. Poets need to search for their personal vision and then write that vision down in a language other people can understand. My goal has always been to be honest and not sell out as so many others in the arts have done. Integrity is all a poet has in the end, and when he sells this he has truly entered into a pact with the devil.
Kennedy: The devil! Do you think there is a progenitor of evil, or are you speaking metaphorically here?
Winans: I am speaking metaphorically. But if one were to use the dictionary definition of a demon they would find that it could also be “a person who has great energy or skill.” Obviously, this isn’t what comes to mind when the average person uses or hears the word demon. I choose to use it because it conjures up the image of being “possessed.” But one need not be possessed by evil demons. My demons are exactly the opposite of evil. I don’t know if this makes any sense to you or not.
Kennedy: Yes! It makes great sense. I have not ever been possessed in quite the way you speak of it, but I’ve certainly been obsessed. Meanwhile, you’re one of the U.S. poets who have had a chance to look back over a long period of poetry history, what significant changes have you witnessed?
Winans: I don't really concern myself with things like this. I was never really into Shelley or Byron, but early on was able to identify with Eliot and Pound. However, it was Robert Lowell who made a breakthrough for me with his emotional experiences laid openly out on the page. I took another step forward with the poetry of Anne Sexton who was able to write about her experiences as a woman suffering from a nervous breakdown, poems which were very emotional, but also written with a dedication to craftsmanship. Her poems freed me to write a book about my dysfunctional family (Scar Tissue). Wilfred Owen freed me to write about my military experiences in Panama. Later I traveled a road leading me to poets like Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski, both of whom I shared a lot in common with, which went beyond the subject matter of their poems. The only changes I am interested in are the changes I have undergone in both my life and my poetry. In truth my life and my poetry are one and the same.
Kennedy: These dysfunctional family experiences that you were able to share after reading Sexton, are you saying that, like her, you were abused?Winans: Abuse comes in many different forms. My family argued constantly every day of my waking childhood life. I still vividly recall two incidents that have stayed with me my entire life. The first was as a young boy when I saw my parents arguing in the hallway, and in a heated moment, my mother slapped my father across the face. I saw the look of anger on my father’s face as he raised his hand to slap her back, but he saw me out of the corner of his eye and held back. Another time my mother broke a dish over my father’s head, while my adopted brother and I watched in horror. As I grew into my teens, I took to having arguments with my mother and once she reacted by throwing a coat hanger at me, which hit me in the face. This was the only physical abuse I personally experienced, but the psychological scars made me a nervous wreck long into my adulthood. Kennedy: And what about the military experiences, were they in any way like those the young men and women engaged in the Iraq War are going through?Winans: It would take me a separate interview to go into those experiences that began in basic training and continued on though my experiences with the 5700th Support Squadron in Panama. Early on I witnessed a sexual assault, which I walked away from, and saw two political prisoners die in a Jeep explosion in town. And there was regular degrading treatment of both our own men and the people in Panama. But this was nothing compared to what went on in Vietnam and Iraq. The chapbook I wrote about those days (This Land Is Not My Land), which won a PEN Josephine Miles 2006 award for Literary Excellence, can be purchased for $6 from Presa Press.
Kennedy: Is it correct then to say that you write poems about your life in the confessional manner of Lowell and Sexton? Do you consider yourself a confessional poet?
Winans: I don’t like labels. But the answer to your question is both yes and no. A lot of my poetry is confessional, but a great deal of it is not confessional. My jazz poems are a good example of this, as are my political poems, with the exception of my Panama military experiences. I don’t constantly put myself into my poems like Bukowski did.
Kennedy: Both Lowell and Sexton were hospitalized due to their mental illness. Have you ever suffered in this manner?
Winans: No, I haven’t, but I have had bouts with anxiety and depression, enough so that I had to take medication and at one time saw a psychologist. However, I have not suffered from severe depression that could be categorized as a mental illness.
Kennedy: What prompts you to write a poem? What is the process that you go through?
Winans: There are many things that prompt me to write a poem. It might be something I saw on the evening news or something I read in the newspaper. Many of my poems have come out of the streets of San Francisco: the homeless, hookers, alcoholics, and the downtrodden souls that society has turned their backs on. My poems don’t come from books that I have read, but from my own personal experiences. A lot of my poems (especially political poems) came about from listening to musicians like Bob Dylan (Masters of War), for instance, whom I believe is also a great poet. I have no identifiable process that I follow. I write whenever the mood strikes me. I am more or less like a composer who hears the music inside his head and then writes it down. If not a composer, then a caretaker for the voices inside my head, who tell me when and what to write.
Kennedy: Not so long ago I read your manuscript-in-progress about a love relationship that had gone bad and left you feeling very vulnerable. When something hits you like this and knocks you down emotionally, does writing about it help you?
Winans: I think for me, in this particular instance, it helped ease the pain I was going through. Writing to me is a form of therapy. The Love Poem book has undergone several revisions, which is unusual for me. I’m glad I set it aside and waited several years after the break-up to find a suitable publisher for it. The woman who is the central focus of the book threatened a lawsuit against me without ever having seen it. She might be surprised to find the book is not a negative book at all, although there are a few poems dealing with the negative aspects of our relationship. You asked if writing about it in some way helped me with the pain I was going through. The answer is, yes! And it wasn't just with this book. The books about my military experience and my childhood had a profound way of putting those particular demons to rest.Kennedy: When is this Love Poem book coming out, and under what title? How can we get it?
Winans: It is tentatively scheduled to come out this fall. The title is Love-Zero with some fine art work by Norman Olson, a very talented artist. Cross Cultural Publications will be publishing it. I believe the price will be $10. This is the same press that published my book, The Wrong Side of Town, which was translated into Russian. Cross Cultural Communications is a respected Press, under the editorship of Stanley Barkan,
Kennedy: In February 2007 you lost much of your work in a fire that gutted your apartment. You were just ripped right out of your own life, so to speak. Have you had any insight on going through this loss? Do you see it as Fate, Destiny, Karma?
Winans: I don't know that I believe in fate or destiny. I do believe in Karma. You know that part about “What goes around comes around,” But I don't think the fire was a result of bad karma. I was devastated by the loss of books of mine and years of correspondence with other poets and writers. I was depressed for many months. I am grateful for my sister taking me in during this period of time, but she lives in suburban Marin County, which is far different from San Francisco. But the flip side is that many good things came about as a result of the fire. A good number of poets and writers (many of whom I do not know) and friends sent me generous cash contributions that enabled me to replace the physical things I lost in the fire. And I patched up my past strained relationship with my sister and in the process have gotten to know my niece and nephew and their children, all of whom I had little contact with before the fire. And it has given me time to contemplate what I want to do with the remaining years of my life. So in this sense the old saying of “everything happens for a reason” may have credence to it.Kennedy: The remaining years of your life….what do you want to do with them? Once I heard His Holiness the Dalai Lama say that now that he has gotten older, he has to spend more time preparing for his death and for his next birth. Do thoughts like this ever enter your mind?Winans: As far as projects go, I want to put together another book of Selected Poems, put the finishing touches on a collection of short, erotic stories, find a book publisher for my articles on Kaufman, Bessie, Micheline and Bukowski, and put together a book of poems with opposite page photographs. If there is any time left over, I’d like to try another stab at my autobiography. As for the latter part of your question, I am not preparing for my death, but I do plan on reading more books on philosophy and religion, including the Bible. However, I’ll skip the “begat” section.
Kennedy: How do you keep yourself going through the tough times?
Winans: There are only two things you can do. You can either pick up the pieces and try to put your life back together or you can throw in the towel and get stoned on drugs or alcohol, and retreat from the real world. Before the fire I had neglected my reading. Since the fire I have gone back and re-read the work of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Langston Hughes, Carl Sandburg, and countless other poets and writers. I find that Sandburg and I have a lot in common. He loved and wrote about Chicago in the same way I love and write about my hometown, San Francisco.
Kennedy: At one point we looked to the east coast, New York and Boston, specifically to get the U.S. poet’s view of life. When did the shift to California as a poetry center happen, in your opinion?
Winans: I'm not the one to ask that question. I never follow poetry trends. New York may have been and still may be the "hub" of the literary scene, but the West Coast has always been a center focus of what is happening in literature. The Beat movement brought with it media attention to the San Francisco and Los Angeles literary scene, and that brought more poets and writers to the West Coast, and, in particular, California.
Kennedy: How did you become a poet?
Winans: Like Jack Micheline I have never said I was a poet. I write from the heart and soul and if people want to say what I write makes me a poet, then that is fine with me. When I was young, I discovered Jack London and Hemingway and other writers and wanted, like them, to be a novelist. I had no thought of writing poetry. However, when I returned home from Panama in 1958, I discovered the Beat movement in North Beach. I came upon the poetry of Jack Micheline, Charles Bukowksi, Richard Brautigan, Ginsberg, and Kaufman, and was able to instantly identify with their work, and how they wrote about their experiences and vision in a clear and ordinary language that the average man and woman could understand. I started writing poems in the Sixties and had my first chapbook published in 1970 by Atom Mind Press. Fortunately, poetry has come pretty easily to me. I can’t say this is true of prose. My poems flow spontaneously on to the page. Prose on the other hand requires many painful revisions.
Kennedy: Do you think your childhood had anything to do with you becoming a poet?
Winans: Not in my becoming a poet, but it certainly provided me with a wealth of material to write about. My childhood days can be found in a book of mine (Scar Tissue), but I do recall a time in grammar school, a teacher passing out a picture of an old man sitting on a park bench, staring out into open space. She assigned the class to write what we believed we saw in the picture. I can't remember what it was I said, but I do recall the teacher praising it in front of the class, and I think maybe this is when I decided I wanted to become a writer. I recall my grandmother buying me my first typewriter, and shortly afterwards reading Jack London’s, Sea Wolf. I think it was at this time that I wanted to become a novelist. I wish prose came to me as easily as poetry, but it does not. I tried my hand at writing a novel, but was awful, and I wound up tossing it in the trashcan.Kennedy: Are you working on anything right now?Winans: I didn’t move back to my old (refurbished apartment) until September 2007. It took a few months to get settled back in. I am currently working on editing my book of short stories and a collection of my published articles. I’m also working on a new book of poems. The first two projects have already undergone two rough drafts, so it is more or less a matter of polishing them up. Like I said Prose does not come easy for me.