This interview was originally published on the Missouri Review’s website here.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
My name is Ted and I am a poet. It still feels funny to be a poet since for most of my adult life I ignored poetry altogether and, like most Americans, had no interest in its perceived value. This was only partially my fault. My father, a self-made businessman, presumed quantifiable success to be the highest end, and raised his children accordingly; creative expression, to him, was the pursuit of a flawed intellect. Naturally, I pursued a business degree at University and went on to receive my PhD in Economics in the early 90s. Thereafter, I trundled along the fallacious path of white collar success and material comfort. For nearly a decade I climbed the hollow capitalist tree, all the while knowing there was no knowledge or salvation to be found at the top.
My life took an abrupt shift when, for my 40th birthday, my partner at the time gifted me a copy of Leaves of Grass, and although my attention was then laser-focused on the great philosophical works of the Eastern tradition, I promised to read it with due diligence. Serendipitously, its thundering pronouncements and explorations of interconnectedness spoke directly to my mindstate at the time. One could even argue that Whitman’s masterpiece is the first great American book in the Eastern tradition. I was hypnotized by his vision, barely breaking my page-gaze to take a blink. Reading Leaves of Grass had a profound transformative effect on my life, which I suppose I’ve been trying all the time since to properly articulate.
The environmental consequences–that I quit my job, sold my condo, and moved to the desert, taking only what would fit in my car–were merely the results of shedding cultural filters that had been obscuring my vision for far too long. I came to the understanding that poetry was the only thing I needed to be doing. I imagine the force I felt was similar to the one which haunted George Oppen’s dreams, pressuring him to write in his later days. Afterwards I began ravenously searching for poems and working my way through the masters of each age—the Metaphysical Poets, the Romantics, the French Surrealists, the New York School, etc.–using historical succession as my only guide. I have been writing and reading poetry every day since.
Most recently, I founded the poetry journal Guest Room, which publishes with complete anonymity. The names of the poets submitting are at no point known to the editors, and the poets accepted are simply credited as “Guest” upon publication. The idea is to have the work stand on its own, without an obtrusive name coloring the experience of the unadulterated poem.
Although I’ve been writing poetry for nearly 15 years, I’ve only recently intruded on the poetry community and ventured into the publishing microcosmos, albeit with great trepidation. I have enormous respect for your Working Writer’s Series, and believe that you are doing an immense service for the underrepresented echelon of the writing community, where some of the greatest talent shines. Thank you for having me.
The Guest Room sounds like a really fascinating idea – very death of the author. What was your goal for publishing only the words of the artist sans its creator? What has the reaction been to the project thus far?
I’m happy to report that the reaction to Guest Room has been overwhelmingly positive. The journal is still in a nascent phase, but a large number of people have submitted, and many more have expressed interest. In our first week of existence alone, Guest Room’s Twitter account (@YourGuestRoom) gained a hundred followers. It was my hope that other people would be compelled toward anonymous publishing, but I never imagined there would be as much genuine interest as there seems to be.
My goal can be best summarized in just the way you put it–the death of the poet. It is a sad state of affairs when poems are relegated to the shadows cast by a poet’s name. For example, the fact that having a recognized name astronomically increases one’s chances of publication is perverse. Ultimately, I hope to establish a space for real collaborative art that eschews all assumptions of property while exploring the untapped potential of non-identity. We must accept that we are living in the internet age, and refuse spin our wheels in the mud of outdated paradigms that cling to authorship. Anonymity is the new identity. The individual must dissolve into the whole in order for art to transcend the limitations of individualism.
As it is, the only avenue we have for accepting submissions is via e-mail, which presents obvious difficulties (e.g. most people’s names are attached to their e-mail addresses). Unfortunately, Submittable charges a monthly fee for their service (will somebody create a free version?) and the journal’s official website hasn’t yet been completed. When the Guest Room website is launched, there will be an anonymous drop box at the top of the page, which will streamline the submission process on both ends.
Your project seems to raise some theoretical questions about ownership: who owns the poem, and in turn, who owns the poet? You’re right, in the internet age, it appears that whatever is put online is open (except for the ultra-litigious) for anyone who can access it, and I believe our conversations are changing because of the medium. Do you feel that Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase would be appropriate here, “The medium is the message” and, if so or if not, how do you think the internet is challenging our notions of ownership, especially considering that property is an ideal held very dear to many hearts?
The internet is having a profound impact on understanding. In its omnipresence, it has become an aspect of human consciousness–a type of external scaffolding upon which to offload cognition. Before computers, books served this function, and long before that, oral tradition. The internet is the logical extension of collective thought and has already redefined the way people think.
The internet challenges ownership in the same way a psychedelic hallucination challenges perception: by realigning it. There is the illusion that we own our contributions to the internet because we are their creators and purveyors. The reality is: Google and Facebook own this information, governmental agencies own this information, any individual who downloads or appropriates something of ours owns this information. Internet users have largely accepted this truth, whether explicitly or implicitly, for years. Yet, even faced with the unambiguous revelation of the NSA’s domestic spying, people are still using Google, people are still using Facebook, our internet habits haven’t changed. To me, this is evidence that property (intellectual, at least) isn’t nearly as dear to people’s hearts as it seems to be. Across the internet, wherein information is farmed, stored, and commodified, people regularly opt for a sense of belonging and recognition over the sanctity of sole ownership.
In the preceding sense, the medium is the message because every datum of the internet is connected to every other datum. We have become the curators of each other’s knowledge. We are already experiencing the first glimmers of the unification of human consciousness; my project merely seeks to raise awareness of this unification, so that poets may position themselves on that horizon.
It’s incredibly hard to imagine packing up so few of your belongings and taking to the desert to completely change your life and dedicate it to poetry after being in finance for so long. What have the challenges been, coming to the writing community after being in business?
When I initially set-out for the Mojave Desert, I had not given much thought to participating in the writing community at large. In fact, contemporary poetry was a classification that I knew nothing about. My only intention was to wrestle with the imagination, and to face my own mortality head-on instead of perpetually trying to escape it.
The lines between the business world and the writing world are less defined than most seem to think. Literature is an industry, complete with an established hierarchy and a growing emphasis on careerism and rank. As in the world of business, there’s even etiquette that one must abide by so as to present oneself as a professional. These inane standards, which one must take seriously in order to, in turn, be taken seriously by “successful” poets and editors, in fact hinder us from fulfilling our collective potential as arbiters of imagination and language. The last thing I care about is being taken seriously by the establishment, so I make it a point to mock these conventions in my every undertaking. As I enter the writing community, my greatest challenge is navigating the delicate landscape; whereas a good business environment encourages straight talk and a certain degree of audacity, the use of these ideals in my dealings with writers has ledto alienation by the many and acceptance by the few.
I cannot speak to other avenues of writing, but many poets seem to be driven by a thirst for power, status, an expanding sphere of influence, and surprisingly, even money. These values, which I had sought to be free from, are central to the businessperson’s mindset, so initially I was quite surprised to see them being embraced so explicitly by the poetry community. Now that the novelty of surprise has worn off, I feel only dejection. There are poets who view poetry as a commodity, which I believe to be a grave mistake. I understand that we are integrated in a complex system and that the solution isn’t as simple as foregoing the exchange of money, but the emphasis of commerce over art is highly problematic. And to simply purport selflessness isn’t enough. We must learn to see through our own images into what is beneath them–the substance of truth, not the illusion of recognition.
Do you feel that the careerism in poetry is limited to the actions of the poet themselves, or is this an issue you’re seeing in the content of contemporary poetry today as well?
There are certainly poets who dumb down their poetry in the desire for wider appeal; Billy Collins is the famous example of this approach. But careerism is not limited to any one aspect of poetry. It is, however, only one application of a larger drive which makes people seek wealth and status, vying for ethereal power.
I’m not trying to act like I’m beyond that drive–I have my own website, I market my posts on Twitter, I would have no reason to give an interview if I didn’t want to extend the reach of my message. But I recognize the inherent contradiction in doing so, and I embrace that contradiction instead of attempting to bury it. I am of the school of thought that one must participate in a system in order to effect change from within.
I hope that in this interview I have not come across as despairing; in reality, I am abundantly hopeful. From conversations I’ve had with other like-minded poets, it appears to me that we are amidst a sea of change in poetry’s application. It is up to each of us as individuals to push literature in the direction we believe it needs to move in order for it to benefit the full spectrum of humankind.
I want to thank you again for having me. It has been an honor to participate in this series.