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 MilwaukeeRiver, I'm struck by how important the river is to you and
to your work.
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
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
All we know for sure
all places that exist
we re once one place.
All we know for certain is
all the beings that exist
or will exist
we re originally all together
in an infinitesimal dot.
All we can know for sure is
humans went from dugout canoes
to spaceships to the Moon
10,000 years humans can go from
spaceships to the Moon
Moons made into spaceships
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
BL:Why come back
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.
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.
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?
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
at something far grander
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
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.
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.
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!
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
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.