C. E. Chaffin stands for Craig Erick Chaffin. He goes by his initials because he doesn’t like his first name (not just because two of his literary heroes are T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis). Born in Ventura, California, in 1954, he turned 49 last October and has white in his beard to prove it.

He graduated from UCLA in 1976, Summa Cum Laudanum, Fine-Bit-of-Krappa, winning the top honors award in English, “The Edward Niles Hooker Award,” though he was not in the honors program. (Despite the name of the award, he swears he did not prostitute himself for this distinction.) He received other awards in medical school, in psychiatric residency, and later as a medical director, not worth listing in a literary bio. He taught Family Medicine at UCI and was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians before the age of 40. Due to chronic spinal pain and manic-depression, he elected to retire on disability from medicine in his early 40s, which led to his discovery of the literary internet.His one and only book, Elementary (Poems), Mellen Press, 1997, is out of print, as is The Best of Melic, 2003, which he edited. He continues to edit The Melic Review, which has distinguished itself through the work of poets at its board by winning and/or placing in the InterBoard Poetry Competition more than any other magazine. (He takes no credit for this!) He has won one poetry contest (Desert Moon Review, 2002) and only by researching himself for this bio discovered he was actually nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2002 by Rose and Thorn.

In addition to poetry and criticism he has published fiction and over seventy humorous columns, which his wife, Kathleen, insists might be his only collection that could make money. (Alas, he has no agent or personal website or important literary connections.) Kathleen is a fine poet in her own right and serves as his editor. Together they have four children and a grandchild. They live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where they would welcome any visitors, especially old literary friends.

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Tryst Interviews CE Chaffin

Mia: CE Chaffin writes: “When I read interviews with poets I’m usually bored, especially when they talk about their own work.” CE Chaffin is anything but “boring” and quite frankly I could have asked him another dozen questions because not only is he entertaining, full of humility, which I prize above all in writers, I am fond of the man. He’s supremely intelligent, witty, and approachable. Aside from my personal subjectivity, I’ve thought and learned more about poetry and respect for its institution at an accelerated rate by corresponding with CE one-on-one than I have in the last fifteen years.

I first met CE by submitting a poem to Melic Review and having the poem chewed up and returned only half recognizable. Rather than forsaking my writing, or dismissing CE, I chose to retire into the background and read as much as I could about him. This is to say that I was more willing to “listen” than be heard, and in doing so I have formed an invaluable relationship with the literature of “CE Chaffin” during the course of three and a half years and that in itself has been more rewarding than my being published.

Furthermore, any writer wishing to seek advice from C.E. Chaffin, I would highly recommend reading “Advice to Young Poets”: <<Advice to Young Poets>> and his essay on <<Modulation>>.

Mia: First of all, could you provide a brief overview of your essays I-IV titled, “Logopoetry”: Perhaps a definition, a basic outline of your arguments and a summary?

CE: This is quite simple. When language forsakes the primary purpose of language, i.e. communication between human beings, it exceeds its medium. A poem should yield some general sense for its audience so that the audience can discuss the work afterwards. No potter throws pieces of a shattered pot into a kiln, glazes them, then puts the fragments on exhibit and dares his public to figure them out, else he has exceeded his medium. (Is it a bird? A plane? No, it’s Superpoet!) As I’ve pointed out in my essays, even Eliot returned to language as communication in his plays, Ariel poems, and Four Quartets. Joyce went the other way into Finnegan’s Wake. If form is an extension of substance, it cannot exist without substance. As I tell students: “Say something, anything. Just don’t write nonsense.”

Mia: What struck me was the idea of “existentialism”, egocentric poetry and communicability in your logopoetry series. By all means, words must communicate, and by that very definition some kind of understanding or a connection must be imparted to the reader upon the first reading. Would you care to expound just a little on the word, “accessibility”?

CE: Accessibility means that the careful reader of poetry, say an elite audience even, will not be frustrated by a first read of a poem but encouraged to return at greater leisure. It does not mean “dumbing down.” It does not mean the throwaway first impression one gets from a poem by Bukowski, or the obviousness of an Angelou or Rod McKuen. It means there exists a human connection, even if unconscious at first, sufficient to touch our heart and our reason. It does not proscribe surrealism, symbolism, the deep image school, or anything which comes to us from less than the expectation of the rational; as Eliot wrote, “Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.”

Mia: By your theory of existentialism, I got the message that modern poetry is too preoccupied with the individual self that bears little or no resemblance to the universal suffering of mankind. Poetry that is too involved with the self typified by the confessional poets often closes out the reader. What struck me was that Transcendentalist poets wanted to rise above industrial materialism (Thoreau, Emerson for example). The one failure I saw in their arguments was a separation from God or Divinity, outside of the self and substituting a monotheistic faith with nature. Did I miss something and would you care to correct me?

CE: No, you have it right. I think Theism is better than Deism is better than Weism is better than Meism. So the Deism of Transcendentalism I find preferable in both life and art to the prison of Existentialism, although to be fair, Existentialism claims to promote the ultimate freedom. And Transcendentalism is closer to Pantheism in some ways than it is to Deism, therefore there can be no separation from God in Transcendentalism just as in Hinduism, save for the illusion of Maya, since we are all a part of a larger unified consciousness. The question is whether the perceived separation we all experience from IT is an illusion or a reality. The Christian answer is obvious. But only Robinson Jeffers, I think, sees the God of nature as the terrible being he must be. The Transcendentalists (and Wordsworth!) had a far too rosy view of him, strongly colored by the Judeo-Christian core from which their philosophies sprung. God’s glory may be derived from nature but certainly not his goodness.

In “Logopoetry I” I state that my schema is an oversimplification, but in reading Bloom and others I see the same division in the history of English Literature, the same I was essentially taught as an undergraduate. I re-framed it in terms of man’s relation to himself and God. My argument was ultimately to show how “Post-Modern,” applied by Olson and Creeley to say, poetry after Auden (excluding formalists), was a clumsy term. It comes from Das Bauhaus, a German architectural term for the oneness of form and function, and whatever its early successes it’s to this happy trend that we owe such monstrosities as the Sears Tower and strip malls. (Olson didn’t write like that though Creeley may.) “Post-Modern” says nothing about the substance of poetry since Ginsberg’s “Howl.” What Post-Modern literature has most in common is a preoccupation with self, which is the central question of our age, as psychoanalysis and existentialism have taught us. So I thought the term “Existential” a more descriptive term for poetry since 1955. As an aside, I find Strand’s surrealistic meditations on depersonalization perhaps the most interesting and original approach during that early part of our era—call him post-confessional, if you will—because in his early work he struggles to find enough self to confess.

Mia: What is wrong with monotheism? The belief in one God? I can deal with agnosticism, but I have always contended that most mature and meaningful writers eventually get around to the big question of faith after exploring the “Meism” or the egocentric need for justifying one’s existence. For this reason, I don’t look to Plath or Sexton as major poets because they didn’t live long enough to confront nor deal with the issue of God-ness. I’d probably look to Dickinson first as a female poet, but ultimately, my role model comes back to Eliot over both Dickinson or Dante because I am less enamored with directness and tend towards form/musicality.

CE: As a Christian I must recuse myself from this question, as my prejudices are obvious. I am on record as saying, however, in “Morality and Poetry,” that I think good art more often arises from a belief in a purposeful cosmos than not. Imagine Homer without the gods, Dante without God, Shakespeare without God and the gods. Falstaff wouldn’t be funny if he weren’t a sinner—if he were just making existential choices—so where’s the punch line? Great drama depends on great stakes; if the stakes are only and merely personal, well, you have Waiting for Godot. It is a great play because it challenged historical assumptions of reason and motive, making man into sort of a molecule driven by Brownian motion. Once this is done in art, where do you go? How does one play off meaninglessness unless driven back to meaning? Existentialism is ultimately a dead end, and Post-Modern Poetry has exhausted the self.


Copyright © 2004 Tryst3.com/CE Chaffin