N  a  p  a  l  m      H  e  a  l  t  h      S  p  a         R  e  p  o  r  t     2  0  0  4



from "Antler: Learning the Constellations"


Interview by Brandon Lewis



Antler is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Antler: Selected Poems (Soft Skull Press, 2001). His new chapbook, Exclamation Points, Ad Infinitum!, is forthcoming from Centennial Press. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and the Walt Whitman Award, Antler's poems have appeared in many anthologies including American Poets Say Goodbye to the 20th Century, Wild Song: Poems from Wilderness, and September 11, 2001: American Writers Respond. In February 2002, he was chosen the new Poet Laureate of Milwaukee.



Brandon Lewis:  As we sit here along the Milwaukee River, I'm struck by how important the river is to you and to your work.


Antler:  It's important to me in that it's always flowing. Coming here regularly is one of the only things that makes it possible for me to live in Milwaukee. I can experience solitude down here, especially during winter after midnight when it's snowing. It's great to come and have coffee. I can stay for hours. In winter I like being able to cross over to the other side, experience walking on the ice and lying on the ice... and in summer, with all the birds - I come because I love birds. I've been writing poems that have to do with the river ever since I started living here. So it is something that entered my poetry early on, and became a part of my life. I have snapping turtle experiences, big snapping turtles. And I saw a snake right down there a couple of days ago. I don't see snakes as much anymore.


BL:  Is there a divide that surfaces in your poetry between the river, what it represents as a sanctuary for you, and the rest of Milwaukee as an industrial city?


Antler:  Yeah- and I like that word sanctuary a lot, it seems like a key word. When I first moved here, the rest of Milwaukee ceased to exist. I never went downtown anymore. I didn't go into the stores because I didn't have any money. So I would just come down here and read. When I went up north to live, I disengaged from the reality of living in the city. There's something about having a river nearby, even a lake, that's very helpful to me. But every writer is different.


 BL:  Watching the river, seeing that blue heron land, I somehow feel restored. It's like a refuge here. But I wonder what it says about one's ability to appreciate the realities of the city. Do you think you could be a poet in, say, downtown Manhattan?


Antler:  Sure. I think you would see the human drama, and the skyscrapers standing in long streets like endless Jehovahs, as Ginsberg says... confirming the human tribe and its domain among millions of people. Both worlds exist. I like the river, but I don't reject the human tribe. I don't think it's a black and white thing, the natural world being just this river escape.


 All we know for sure is


     all places that exist


          we re once one place.


All we know for certain is


     all the beings that exist


          or will exist


     or have existed


          we re originally all together


     in an infinitesimal dot.


All we can know for sure is


     if humans went from dugout canoes


          to spaceships to the Moon


                in 10,000 years,


     in 10,000 years humans can go from


          spaceships to the Moon


                to Moons made into spaceships


          traveling to other galaxies.


                                    - from Know for Sure


 BL:  When you go on your two-month wilderness sabbaticals, what is it you discover? What do you recover?


Antler:  I get in touch with my earlier selves: my grade school self, my baby self, early and late boyhood, early youth, later youth, young manhood. All the various chapters become one. Then I can replay the tapes of my life without any interruption, and review what happened on the playground in fifth grade that one day. I recall all the teachers I once had, all the people I knew and loved, and what happened to them. After the tapes are played out and the memories reviewed, then silence and the sense of going beyond myself - especially when juxtaposed against huge vistas of old growth forest without human beings in sight, and the endless Milky Way scintillating above.


BL:  Why come back at all?


Antler:  That's what I always ask myself. But in some way, one never returns. And what one becomes by the end of an extended stay remains there. Later on, growing older, you return to those places and reconnect with your more youthful apparition. You pal around with that youthful spirit and it re-enters you. So you do come back, but something else doesn't. In a way you have incarnated where you were, and that returns with you and is part of you. I can say that I am in Milwaukee and I am in my house and writing there, but it's as if I'm still where I was, still what I became.


BL:  So the depth of experience while you were away creates a reservoir for you to draw on with your poetry.


Antler:  Yeah. Because in a way, you're risking your life - especially going off by yourself. Once you risk your life and there are bears around, there's a different aspect of commitment toward poetry. If you must die to do it, you will. And you risk everything: poverty, scorn, madness, disillusionment, alienation. It's all at risk to ultimately embrace what the spirit of poetry is.


BL:  You're describing the wilderness poet.


Antler:  Maybe any poet at any time. But there's something magical about going off away from people, sensing your self, your desires and history, seeing yourself as a tiny little speck surrounded by trees that were around before Christ was sucking his mother's breast.


BL:  When you're walking through a forest and gazing up at treetops, can you simultaneously be noting ideas or lines for poems? Or do you have to take in your experiences purely, without thought?


Antler:  Sometimes I get ideas and write them down in my notebook, or poems will come to me finalized in a single moment of delight.


Save as feeling if they don't know of me or the stars


     what do I not know of


          that's looking


     through me


          at something far grander


     than itself...


                                    from Save as an Idea


But often there is no thought. I become an animal spirit wandering endless forests, gazing out at sublime non-human vistas. Somehow the wordless realm of no-thought takes over and my identity as a poet is lost, my memories of myself are lost, everything is lost, and as Emerson says about the eyeball...


BL:  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all...


Antler:  Yeah, I become transparent in that way. Part of it is embracing myself, and being content with wordlessness.


BL:  So if a poet is jotting down lines while in the midst of the poetic experience, does that take away from the depth of their experience?


Antler:  Some might say you're robbing yourself of the cosmic moment by trying to capture it, and maybe emotion recollected in tranquility, as Wordsworth said, is a better way to go, and not go out expecting or demanding anything. But I don't think one way is necessarily right and the other is wrong. Some people do best in crowded cafes, observing other people with an endless cup of coffee. And for others that's totally foreign, they have to be alone with no interruptions.


BL:  Where does your dreaming inner voice arise from - the voice that wonders about frozen bubbles and amoebas swimming on your eyes. Is it a childlike voice?


Antler:  I hope it is. It seems one of the difficulties is that a lot of people have their child wonder-essence lobotomized. They grow up to be responsible adults but never reconnect with that wonder again. Maybe it's just openness toward a visionary experience that goes beyond knowing what's true and not true anymore, and just being in awe of aspects of the natural world that have never occurred to you before.


BL:  What books influenced you as a child?


Antler:  The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan. Those had a big effect on me. They beckoned a fantasy realm which was and still is a part of my feelings. Later, Leaves of Grass would be a major book in my life - there was this vision of love and death and nature that was truer than what I found in the Old and New Testaments, or other sacred texts of human-centered spiritual traditions. It seemed Whitman's vision was more complete, more passionate, more understanding and celebratory of human reality, the reality of the Eros energy and the human promise. I didn't have any friends, but you can read Leaves of Grass and Whitman can become your friend. He actually has lines which suggest it's something that can happen. So there's a kind of seance effect that takes place, and then the spirit of Walt Whitman walks by your side, protecting you, and you have fun taking Leaves of Grass along - that's your pal, you have fun with Leaves of Grass!


BL:  Maybe you're Walt Whitman reincarnated.


Antler:  I don't think so - although on some level I may be. I think it's more complex than that. The spirit and the energy Whitman put forth was absorbed by thousands of poets and spiritual seekers who then had the awareness that he embraced inside himself. I don't think any one person can be an incarnation of Walt Whitman.


BL:  How did your friendship with Allen Ginsberg shape your view of poets and poetry?


Antler:  One of the main things he represented for me was complete courage to trust who I was without fear, and to write poetry with complete candor and openness. He criticized society's injustice and intolerance, and did so with compassion, tenderness, hopefulness, and humor. He had something to replace it, or balance it with. Endless encouragement of younger poets was also a big part of his mission.


BL:  Do you have a sense of yourself maturing as a poet?


Antler:  I hope so, and I believe in that. I think there's a poet you can be in love with, a thought you can move through as your sensitivities change during metamorphosis from childhood through adolescence, and through the various stages of adulthood. As one matures, one's work goes to different levels.  Some people think poets are better in their younger phases than in their older phases - like, say, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Swinburne. I never felt that way.


BL:  Would you still be a poet if, after today, you could write no more words? 


Antler:  Yes. The definition of poetry on one level in our society is that you write things down on paper and get them into print, which proves to others in your tribe that you are a poet. But that's just step one. Your book then has to receive positive reviews, then another book must be coming, and you have to keep cranking out books until you're a corpse. That seems to certify you as a poet, but endless ages unfold, review what you've done, and make their own judgements. There are poets today who we think are the greatest on Earth, but who we might have nothing to do with three hundred years from now.  And in ten thousand years everything is dust. So on a huge time-frame, all that we do ends up obliterated, the Earth ends up being swallowed by the sun and the sun cools.  But I find, especially in early adolescence, there is something very poetic- that boys and girls don't even know they have. Some people write poetry when they are young, but go on to other things and stop writing. And yet, because they touched base with it once, it's always a part of their story. I don't think there's anything to be afraid of - the spirit and feeling of it is more important than its publication. Before there were books and literary magazines, the spirit of poetry existed, and the pulse of the connection with the Big Mystery was felt and experienced, and the tender realization of mortality was present. The fact that Neanderthals buried their dead with flowers sixty thousand years before Christ is very affirming and reaffirming of human beauty and soulfulness.



This interview was originally published in BL Literary Arts Magazine. Vol. 7 Is 1, Jan 2004.