H e a r t S o n s & H e a r t D a u g h t e r s of A l l e n G i n s b e r g
N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 1 4 : A r c h i v e s E d i t i o n
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
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 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
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
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 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
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 judgments. 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 first appeared in BL Literary Arts Magazine. Vol. 7, Issue 1, Jan 2004. Originally published in NHS 2004, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs04/Antler.html.]