Tryst Interviews CE Chaffin (Page.4)

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Mia: You mention “quotability” in your essay, “<<Towards a New Direction for Poetry>>.” Did you know these lines by Eliot, “Till Human Voices Wake/And We Drown” was made into a movie with Helena Bonham Carter. Have you seen it? Basically the movie was a failure, but the fact that Eliot’s work is making it into the mainstream of consciousness, after Cats, doesn’t that say something about his prowess as a writer? He, in my opinion will outlast every single poet after Shakespeare. Audacious thing to commit to an interview, but here’s my question: What do those lines mean to you?

CE: Haven’t seen the flick, didn’t particularly like Tom and Viv. The lines you quote mournfully remind us that our internal world of soothing imagination, like Prufrock’s mermaids, must end when human voices wake us and we must actually live—or drown—in real life: “We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire” (“Little Gidding” IV). By the way, I think “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” the greatest poems in the English language. How’s that for equally audacious?

Mia: What are you doing in Mexico and how is it living in a foreign land? Easier, more relaxed lifestyle? Have your poems taken on a different outlook?

CE: Being on a fixed income for disability means that our money stretches further here. I can afford that great luxury, an office away from home, where I do some real writing. I’ve been able to begin my series on Eliot largely because of that, I think—something I’d always wanted to do but never began. Some of the poems of mine you chose for this issue naturally reflect Mexico as a source of subject matter, but I can’t say my poetry has changed appreciably. One great thing in this old colonial town (with about 10,000 Canadian and American expatriates) is the social life. My wife, Kathleen, who is congenitally deaf but lip-reads, has been able to make a number of close friends here—something that was nearly impossible for her in New York and LA. She doesn’t sign but I don’t want to go into all the reasons for that. She will be featured in Mindfire this December (Ed. Gary Blankenship) as she is a fine poet. She is also my editor and will read this interview before I send it off. You want her to proofread your questions?


Mia: Speaking of poems, where would you like to see your own poetry go? Any books in sight, any other medium besides internet and the printed page?

CE: I’d like to see my poetry get better, naturally. By that I mean deeper, more powerful. A great poem won’t let you go; it forces you to finish it even if you don’t like it. That’s always my goal, though rarely accomplished. I think I’m at least ten years away from being first-rate, and I’ll be the last to know if I do, as we cannot judge our own work.

I have five good mss., four of poetry and one of criticism, looking for a publisher, but I don’t have an agent or connections. I did enter one in a recent contest, haven’t heard the results, never won a ms. contest and probably never will. Unfortunately, most (if not all!) quality presses are closed to unsolicited poetry manuscripts, notably LSU and Copper Canyon (and, of course, Knopf). My first and only published book of poetry, Elementary (Mellen Press 1997) was taken by the first publisher I sent it to but it’s out of print. I need an agent, keep putting off looking for one. Uhh-- who wants to be an agent for a poet/critic? No money in it. I do have some interesting fiction but I’ve been told it doesn’t fit the right marketing niche. I have a long theological tome called In Search of the Spirit that no one except a few friends have read. I am trying to get a web site up but have had multiple technical problems. I suppose if I had to make a living from writing I’d be forced to be much more aggressive in terms of “success.” As it is I can write what I want and feed my family with my disability pension. Not the best situation for a writer, I’m afraid, but a good one for a disabled doctor.

Mia: I want to discuss this poem, Demon Melancholy. I felt that this one was influenced by Eliot with Dante’s directness. If you were to parse this poem, what is it doing, saying to the reader? These lines are wonderfully captive:

“where speech has no conclusion
and touch is without resistance,

where music turns to noise
and selves are emptied of history”

Demon Melancholy

His cold breath steams up my neck
like dry ice. I never see him approach.

He comes from darkness
where eyes forget they are eyes,

where speech has no conclusion
and touch is without resistance,

where music turns to noise
and selves are emptied of history

and personality like milk bottles
below the ninth circle of hell.

I hear his wild dogs carol
in the burning church of my mind.

Pass the offering plate—
Is that a medicine vial, a gun?

Jimmy crack corn and I don't care,
the light has gone away.

CE: Yes, you caught me, obviously this poem shows the influence of Dante and Eliot, though I like to think there’s a touch of Plath, too. The poem is about clinical depression: the worst hell I know. For any who don’t know, I’m a third-generation manic-depressive and once required 12 shock treatments at age 30. The depressions of manic-depressives are known to be the most severe and treatment-resistant of all depressions. My dad committed suicide, for instance, and both my grandmothers required shock treatment. Manic-Depression is a disease much more prevalent in poets, as you know, and has roughly a 30% lifetime mortality when untreated. I have never attempted suicide but I’ve wished for it with all my heart continuously for up to sixteen months while continuing to work as a doctor. Anyway, that’s what the poem’s about, but being a poem, it’s now whatever it is to the reader. I must say it can still make my skin crawl, though those who haven’t been there may think it a bit strange. I find it horrifyingly familiar.

Mia: You teach an online class, could you describe it a little bit here? What are your objectives and what should the student expect? Do you think that maybe you should break up the courses into different course levels, for example: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced because I’m thinking having looked over your course syllabus that your course is rigorous. My only recommendation that I would take to heart is a lifetime of reading is just the beginning to writing good poetry. No?

CE: I don’t get too many students, it’s a word-of-mouth thing, it’s well hidden at Melic’s site. We started with groups, then I found one-on-one was best for anyone serious. Yes, it is rigorous; no, I won’t change it for beginners. Learning how to write poetry is a skill, requires hard work and takes a long time, literally a lifetime. And no matter how much craft you acquire, which is the emphasis of the course, you may never be a good poet. But without the fundamental skills, or craft, you will never even have a chance to be a good poet. Call me a classicist. Learn the craft; don’t think free verse is free. Look how “free” Eliot’s verse is! There’s an oxymoron if ever I heard one. Anyone interested can write me at for a course outline. I do require all prospective students to send me samples of poems before I consider them. It’s a lot of work and a lot of fun; one recent student had twin girls near the end of the course and was writing a poem about what their names ought to be before she named them. I get close to my students, I have that luxury, perhaps because of the personal distance afforded by the web. But I’m not doctrinaire; it’s about their poetry, their voice, their development. Though the syllabus may appear rigorous, my interaction is always tailored to the student’s needs.

Mia: Is there anything else you’d like to discuss that I didn’t cover adequately or not mentioned here?

CE: Jeez, isn’t this enough? When I read interviews with poets I’m usually bored, especially when they talk about their own work. Let’s give your readers a break (if any of them had the patience to read this far).
And thanks for having me. No one’s ever read up on me like you--before featuring me--and it’s eerie to think there are some people actually read and can discuss my work. Feeling anonymous is one comfort of publishing on the net, and you’ve made me feel a little recognized. Let’s hope it doesn’t spread since, to quote the mystery novelist again, “Privacy is the last luxury.” —P. D. James


C. E. Chaffin 5/29/04

Copyright © 2004 Chaffin