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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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
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
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