Coleman: When did you start writing, and how did you ever get the idea you were a poet in the beginning?
JC: Hell, everybody in America is a writer, if they're breathing. Just ask them. I've met few people who don't believe they're writers, and the ones who don't make that claim are quick to tell you that they could write if they wanted to write. And I'm sure many of them believe that, for 'writing' is one of those fundamental things we learn as little tykes--I mean making words with a writing instrument, not creative writing. And therein lies the rub--so many transfer the idea of simply being able to pen words onto paper into the broader realm of creating something of literary value. It's simple: I can 'write' a sentence, so why couldn't I write "War and Peace" if I wished? Of course most of us can't do that, but again most of us don't let the facts get in the way of our mental picture of our abilities or ourselves.
I started writing stories in the third grade. I can't explain how that happened, except that prior to writing the stories I'd draw. My drawings were usually violent little stick sketches for an 8 or 9 year old: things like figures hanging from a tree limb or one figure shooting the other with a pistol. I suppose I was one of these people born with a violent inclination, because you must remember this was about 1949 or 1950. We didn't have a TV set until 1952, so I hadn't been corrupted by any exposure to that sort of media--and, at that point in time, television was like it is today anyway with all the violence and bloody death.
I recall vaguely that one day I looked at a drawn scene of several figures shooting it out with one another and thought something: this looked like a bunch of crooks and cops shooting it out in a bank. And so the first story I ever wrote dealt with bank robbers who were shot by the cops . . . I can't explain how I understood the moral imperative of the times, but as was customary the bad guys bought the farm and the cops were all safe. But this was in the day and age when were believed that police officers were our friends, and that they would protect us. The past few decades we've seen that idea change to the 'us and them' situation now wherein the cop is usually an aggressive sort more bent on throwing his weight around and exerting his authority than in protecting and serving the populace.
Anyway, I wrote a lot of this kind of drivel as a child and I read a lot as well. You have to read voraciously if you want to write. I believe that as much as I believe anything. Not for the purpose of copying any of the styles you read, but to keep packing that storehouse in your mind with fresh ideas, with conceptual learning you can't always get in your everyday life. And in some way it's an act of discipline to sit down and read a book, it requires a certain level of intent and concentration. Discipline is one of the hardest things for many writers to develop and it's something I've always had a problem with. I am undisciplined in the worst way, even when it comes to the "bread & butter" writing I do for a living. That doesn't mean I let my work go beyond the point of no return--in fact, I've never missed a deadline in all my years of journalism. But I sometimes push the edges of the envelope as far as they will go time-wise. Indeed, over the years I've noticed that many of the things I've written under pressure seemed to be better than other pieces written at leisure. And so I can operate well enough under pressure, and frequently find myself in that situation.
But getting back to my progression as a writer, at some point, in the mid-fifties, I quit writing. I still read a lot and later got into the Beat writing thing--when I discovered Kerouac it was as if I'd run across my own voice out there in America! This guy was saying all the things I wanted to say but didn't know how. And later, when I was in the Navy, I began jotting down things in a spiral notebook . . . A few lines of something that could be a poem, a plot to a story, things like that. While on the USS Ranger sailing from Yokosuka, Japan back to Treasure Island, California, I started a short story in one of the spirals. I'd work on it during most of my spare time--which was considerable, since I'd abandoned the transient workstation I'd been assigned the first day out of port. Because of that, and because of the fact that the petty officer to whom I was assigned was looking all over the ship for me with the intent to have me placed in the brig if found, I had to keep on the move. But that's another story for another time.
The story I wrote on that voyage was a shitty one, but it got me fired up to write again. Not long afterward, I was working as a night clerk/bootlegger in a hotel and had access to a typewriter. I began pounding away on the old typer, turning out poetry and stories. This was in 1960. There was a professor with the local college who lived in the hotel and one night he asked me what I was writing. I told him poetry, and he asked if I would mind him reading some of them. I said it was OK and he took a bunch of them with him. He was dating a woman who was an English instructor at the University of Mississippi and he let her read them. She made a number of comments in the margins, most of them positive, and I must say I was uplifted when he returned the poems. It was the first encouragement anyone ever gave me.
But I'm rambing. That's an idea of how I got started. Later I had an old mimeograph machine (shades of Ben Hiatt and at about the same time in the mid-sixties as well, I've since learned) and I used to turn out little masterpieces mainly for myself. I discovered the small press in the later sixties, about the time I discovered Bukowski, and in the early eighties I started Thunder Sandwich. It was through this connection that I met up with so many of the people I know today like Androla, Townsend, Solarczyk, Nimmo and a bunch more. And so here we are all these years later, all of us still cooking even if the rocking chair is getting close for some of us. It's been a fun trip any way you cut it, and I hope it goes on for some time to come.
Coleman: Who has been the greatest influences on your writing, both past and present?
JC: That's a tough one, because there have been so many. I think that one of the earliest influences was Mark Twain. I discovered Twain as a kid and I loved the folksy charm of his books. And his characters were all so cleanly drawing and interesting . . . they were simply alive in the same way I felt alive. You see, I grew up in that kind of rural setting, I knew what it felt like to walk down to the river on a sunny day with a fishing cane over my shoulder and a can of worm in my hand. I could have been Huck Finn, except a bad ass case of Huck probably--at that age, I was stealing packs of Dad's Camels and filling up empty Listerine bottle from his booze supply. I was also 'playing doctor' with the neighborhood girls, going a bit further than Tom or Huck might have gone with Ms. Becky. Also, at this younger age, I enjoyed the "Overland Trail Boys" series and read all those. Christ, I hate to admit it, but I also read those Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. But I didn't read Laura Ingalls Wilder--at least not until my daughter was reading them in the seventies, and dammit if I didn't read a few of them and loved them. So, that blows my literary standing I suppose.
Later, I got into the vast world of contemporary literature. Hemingway, Wolfe, Faulker, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Mailer, James Jones, Bourjailley, Baldwin, Capote, practically everyone. After all the court battles were over and Henry Miller came to America I went nuts over his writing--I think Miller is probably the most underrated writer who ever lived. He's basically known to many as a pornographer when in fact he was one of the more superb tacticians writing in the English language. Of course I read Whitman, who's the godfather of all modern poets, and later William Carlos Williams. And there was Kerouac and Brossard and Holmes and the Beats . . . . During my St. Louis days, when I was prone to getting sauced and calling people all over the world for hours (you can ask Ron Androla about getting caught on the front end of one of those binges!), Brossard and I became telephone buddies of a sort. Old Chandler died a bitter man I suspect, because in those early eighties days he felt he had been pretty much overlooked by the literary establishment.
And of course I don't want to leave out Bukowski. Unfortunately, Buk has become something of a cult icon with a lot of bad imitators crawling out of the woodwork, most of whom couldn't tote his dirty boxers. The fact is, Buk wrote with simplicity most people can't even begin to capture, just as Hemingway did at his best. Or Steinbeck, for that matter. All of them were masters of the clean, even phrase. Any fool can write a convoluted sentence with a dozen subordinate clauses, but it takes a real writer to pen the ideas that strike you as truths at first glance.
As for present influences, I'm not so sure. You can look in Thunder Sandwich past and present to see a partial list of some of the writers whose work I admire today, because they wouldn't be there if I didn't. I don't wanna get caught in the trap of naming names because then I'd leave someone out unintentionally. I will say that among the group of people I know best, I think Jim Valvis has probably the best change of 'making it' in the sense of gaining wide recognition. Valvis is still young enough, he has all the tools and drive, and he has that other rare thing: strict discipline. A lot of the other writers I know are good enough to gain the widespread acceptance and recognition as well, but many, like myself, are getting a little long in the tooth. We let out best time pass while dwelling more on other pursuits, like women, drugs, and alcohol. We were more intent on having fun that succeeding in the larger sense.
But, getting back to influences, there's a big difference in admiring the value of the work of my contemporaries and letting it influence my writing or style. I suspect that at this point in time, my style--my 'voice' if you will--is fairly well set in stone. I don't think anything is apt to change it much, although I can appreciate the different voices ringing out there in American and the world . . . If I couldn't I'd be a piss poor zine editor.
Coleman: Are you stories and poems based on your life or lifestyle? Where do you get your best ideas?
JC: Almost with fail in the case of poetry, and usually without much, if any, embellishment. Many of my stories are also autobiographical to some degree, although I use a freer hand there, take a few more liberties with the facts--sometimes just by changing the chronology of events for better flow. And some of the stories are based on characters I've known, as well as settings that are familiar to me. In short, I basically write what I know about, which is, or should be, the first rule of writing. Some kid in Nebraska sitting by the side of a corn field may 'research' the glitter life of Broadway and try to write a story or poem incorporating those characters and sounds and sights and smells, and that's what he will get--something that smells. And it's no different if a Park Avenue sophisticate tries to write about hog killin' time in Arkansas. It's phony bullshit and it takes a paragraph or less for the astute reader to realize that.
I'm sure some folks think the situations and happenings in my poems are contrived, because some of them are so outrageous. But I'm something of an outrageous person and I've lived what could be called a wild life. Not so much now--I'm at an age where getting your jaw jacked by some dude twice your size is no fun, nor is it a party to get tossed in the slammer. So I've mellowed a bit at this point in life, but I'm still not down for the count. I can still get mad, bad and dangerous to know under the right conditions.
So I suppose I get most of my ideas straight out of reality. Occasionally I'll have a flash right out of the blue and something will come to me full-grown. I should also note that I usually write a poem in a sudden blast. I joke about my two-minute poems, but--unless they're excessively long--that's probably more than time for many of them.
Coleman: You live in West Tennessee, somewhat removed from the literary scene. What impact has that had on your writing?
JC: I'm not sure that where I live has had an effect on my writing so much one way or the other. Indeed, I've lived all over the country during my adult life and have written everywhere.
I also moved around some as a child because my dad worked on the pipeline. That was not a positive experience in any way, as we were looked upon as gypsies and virtual untouchables. I suspect I could trace much of my bad attitude as a youth and younger adult back to the resentments that I formed. But it toughened me up in some way that a placid lifestyle wouldn't have, so at least I gained something from it. You know that old shit, every cloud has a silver lining somewhere. Mine was just a little tarnished.
Living in this rural area has been negative in the sense that it has isolated me from a group with like interests--until the Internet came along, that is. There are few in this area with whom I'm associated--present company excluded, of course--who care much for poetry and the kind of writing I do. Oh, we have a small college here and so there is some bit of interest at that level . . . I recall poetry readings held there in the past, by poets I was unfamiliar with. I never had any desire to attend one because I figured the poetry would be too academic for my tastes.
But, living in what is virtual literary isolation can have a positive affect as well. It can keep one from spending too much time talking about something instead of doing it, which I think happens in places where there are broader circles of writers. I'm not one with a lot of faith in workshops and writer's conferences and that kind of bullshit. I think writers write and the others talk about it, or teach.
One of my biggest literary thrills here was in 1986 during all that 'Homecoming '86' crap, when Alex Haley came to McKenzie on the train trip being made by all those politicians and celebrities. I stood alone with Haley over by the old train depot and talked not about "Roots," but about a Playboy interview he did with American Nazi George Lincoln Rockwell back in the sixties. Haley was amazed that I knew about it, but I told him I'd read it at the time and was very impressed.
'That was the scariest situation I've ever been in,' he told me, then went on to detail how he was surrounded by storm trooper all during the interview, which lasted a couple or three days. He said Rockwell had a Luger pistol lying close at hand on his desk and told Haley, 'You seem like a nice nigger, but don't think I won't use this if necessary.'
A guy who can operate under those conditions has to have a set of balls that wouldn't fit in a gunnysack. I admire that kind of courage.
So, in the long haul I doubt where I live has made much difference one way or the other. And this area provides good fodder for some of the characters I like to write about. People elsewhere have a misconception about some of these good ole boys. The regard them as ignorant and uneducated, and don't realize that some of those old boys use that ploy to get the upper hand on you.
I recall a column that appeared in a Los Angeles paper when former Tennessee Governor Ned McWherter came to town to talk with the film community about shooting more pictures in Tennessee. The columnist took note of Ned's folksy manner, but advised everyone to keep one hand on the wallets. Having interviewed Ned a couple times myself, I thought that was sage advice.
Coleman: I know you went to Kent last summer and met some of the poets. Who were you most impressed with?
Chandler: I don't wanna get caught in a trap by saying who I was most impressed with at Kent. The pure true is, I was greatly impressed by all these people. They're a talented and impressive lot, every last man and woman of them.
From a purely personal standpoint, it was great to finally meet Androla and Cheryl Townsend and Bart Solarczyk after all these years. I suppose I was more surprised by Androla--he was more pleasant than I thought he'd be, to be quite frank. Somehow I had Ron pictured as cocky, but he didn't come off that way at all. He's smart and sure of himself, of course, but there's nothing phony about him at all. He'd be a hell of a guy if he could keep up with me in the drinking department!
And Cat Townsend, she was a great help to me when I began Thunder Sandwich, she directed all the writers to me. When my life fell apart in St. Louis, she even offered to print an issue of the mag for me. We never got around to that because I fell into an ocean of whiskey and dope for a long time. But I never forgot her kindness.
Big Bart had used some of my poems once years ago in a chapbook with Androla, Pat McKinnon, Todd Moore and another fellow. I found Bart to be a big, cheerful dude and a good guy all the way around. I think he and Androla are going in the music business full time when they get tired of fucking around with poetry.
And of course it was great meeting McNeilley and Lainie Thomas, Cait Collins and Trina Stolec, all of whom I've come to know on the Internet the past couple of years. They're fine people one and all and talented as hell too. I don't wanna embarrass the old boy, but McNeilley is like some kind of goddamn saint in that wheelchair. The dude is layered in a coat of cool Donald Trump couldn't buy. Maybe if I could write romantic poetry like he can, I'd be able to maintain a relationship with a woman instead of going through all the miseries I have.
One of my remaining goals is to finally meet t. k. splake one of these days. The old graybeard bard and I have communicated on a weekly basis for almost 20 years and yet we've never laid a real eye on one another. Since prying that old recluse out of his Calumet pad might be more difficult that finding hen's teeth, I may have to invade the Upper Penninsula one of these days. We won't take any prisoners when, and if, that happens.
Coleman: Of all the stories and poems you've written, what's you favorite of each?
JC: My favorite story or poem? I've yet to write it. I think writers tend to view their work as offspring, in some sick way. Thus far, most of mine are crippled little mutant bastards. But, I love some of them a little in spite of that. Just not enough to name them favorite.
Coleman: You had some stuff in the Outlaw Bible that came out recently. What effect has that had on you?
JC: I was glad to be included and I think it's a good book, despite the carping of some that so-and-so was left out and all that kind of bullshit you're going to get in a project like that. Sure, there were some people who could have been included that weren't, but you have to stop somewhere. As for all that shit about it couldn't be an outlaw book without Bukowski, well only a fucking pinhead would make that claim. Buk was great and sure, he should have been there. I don't know why he wasn't, but I suspect it had something to do with the ownership of his work product . . .There are obviously several fingers in that pie. And, great as he was, Buk isn't the end-all and be-all of poetry. There's been a lot of flack on some of the newsgroups about this lack of Buk in the Bible, most of it led by one of those aforementioned Buk pretenders who has convinced a substantial number of people that he's something special. I'd like to belly up to a bar with that punk for a night and show him just what a lightweight asshole he really is.
I think the basic effect it's had on me is to cause a certain segment to resent me. That resentment shows up in the fact that when I submit something nowadays, it's neither accepted nor rejected, just ignored. It goes into a black hole and I never see it again. I usually get pissed at some point and withdraw it voluntarily.
Certainly some of that could be the irresponsibility of some of these people who pretend to be editors. They have no sense of responsibility whatsoever. I challenge you to find anyone I've left hung out to dry on a submission--and I don't play this 'notify you in a month' bullshit either, and I know most of those folks aren't any busier than I am. It's just gamesmanship to a lot of people, the closest they will ever come to getting their name up in lights.
I, on the other hand, write for thousands of people every week, have won awards--not from a handful of close buddies, but from associations in other states who didn't know who the hell I was--and have rubbed shoulders with celebrities and the powerful. I know all that sounds immodest, but it's just the simple truth.
And that's part of the problem, I suspect, because there are some who think I'm a sellout because I earn a living working for a newspaper. Journalists are not held in high esteem in this world, even bush-league journalists such as I.
Screw it, what can I say. I'm too lazy to work. That's the bottom line.
Coleman: What is the biggest mistake you see being made today by novice or beginning poets today?
JC: Christ, you want a book? I see lots of mistakes being made by beginners, and some of them are also made by poets who've been around awhile--myself included. It ain't an exact science and in fact you can do or use anything that will work, but there are some things that put one awfully close to the edge of failure if overused.
From a linguistic viewpoint, probably that the biggest mistake made by many beginning poets is overusing the metaphor and the simile. It's not unusual to see entire poems wrapped in enigmatic language and filled with such devices. Some folks just can't seem to say outright what they wish to say, but think they can convey a message wrapped in obscure language--which is foolish, because the conveyance of emotions and ideas should be the end product of poetry.
Or some people simply play words around in a nonsensical way in search of a pure language pattern, a spoken 'song' if you will. There are some seasoned poets who can manage this, by utilizing word structure and form (McClure comes to mind), but it's not something a novice should tackle with any hope for success.
Of course the metaphor is a useful tool, when used sparingly and in the right place. Most of my poetry is of the "meat" poet school--that is, it has its roots in reality, in happenings and occurrences. It's autobiographical in large part because I'm a firm believer in that old adage, "write what you know." And what do we know better than the things we've been a part of?
I sometimes curse my journalistic past, but in truth it may have a positive influence in developing my particular style of poetry. I think it's helped me deliver lines in a certain cadence and flow that makes sense. I won't say that I'm the best poet alive, but I will say that few can find the actual 'voice' of a poem any better when I'm hitting on all cylinders. And I like to sometime throw in a metaphor at the proper place to jolt the reader--very frequently it may be something of a violent natures, because much of my work is born out of the violence of my past, even the more staid things.
The main problem with beginning writers, poets and otherwise? Trying to write about shit they know nothing about, as I said above. Also, when it comes to content there's way too much unrequited love and juvenile angst. Hell, we've all had our hearts broken time and again. Just deal with it. You know the old adage--what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That may or may not be true, but I'd amend it to add that what doesn't kill you sometimes pisses you off. And there are a lot of pissed off folks writing poems, me among them at times.
And of course a lot of young writers just don't have the discipline necessary to succeed at writing. Writing may be enjoyable work at times, but it's still work. And sometimes it's not enjoyable at all and then it becomes a necessary chore.
Coleman: That leads me to my next question. Do you set aside a certain time each day to write, or do you write only when inspiration comes calling?
JC: If I waited for Dame Muse, I'd be a lot less prolific that I have been. But again, I no longer set aside a writing time, as I once did. The fact is, I basically write all the time--if I'm not doing a work-related article, then I'm fiddling around with something else. There's not a day of my life that I don't write something--when that day comes, you can expect that they will be slapping my face with a shovel out at the cemetery. I have to write something every day whether I want to or not, it's a compulsion I've faced most of my life.
Coleman: What do you see as the future of poetry? Will it survive time and be something people in the future will want to take part in, or will it go the way of the dinosaur?
JC: That's the $64,000 question. I personally believe there will always be poetry so long as Mankind is free to think and dream, but then a lot depends on your definition of poetry. To some, if it's not in the pages of The New Yorker or some tome from the hallowed halls of academe, it's not poetry. Many people would not regard what I do as poetry, not in the sense that it meets their rigid specifications. And too, some would look upon the educational background of the so-called poet to gain a fix on whether or not one was writing poetry or gibberish. Being one of those fellows who dropped out of high school to join the military, I wouldn't be held in too much esteem by this system of establishing value. I don't have a sheepskin from any vaulted university to prove I can write and some folks won't take anything on face value.
Coleman: That about winds it up. Any last comment you'd care to make?
JC: No, it was fun and I think I offended everyone I meant to offend. We'll do it again when the next millennium rolls around.