Russell Streur is a born-again dissident residing in Johns Creek, Georgia. His work has been published in Europe, certain islands and the United States. He operates the world’s original on-line poetry bar, The Camel Saloon, catering to dromedaries, malcontents and jewels of the world at http://thecamelsaloon.blogspot.com/; and the curator of The Bactrian Room, a journal for bactrians, ghosts and travelers on the Long Silk Road with a story to tell at http://bactrianroom.blogspot.com/. He co-founded Poets Democracy in 2010 with Christi Kochifos Caceres and is the author of The Muse of Many Names, The Petition to Free Zhu Yufu, and other works.
Interview by: g emil reutter
GER: Why are you a poet?
RS: That’s a term I duck and dodge, poet, because I’m not very prolific and I don’t work on it as a craft on a daily basis. I looked up definitions for the word today and none seemed to really fit. For myself, writing poetry doesn’t make me a poet. What I’m missing and why I’m not comfortable with the word is a vocabulary of the natural world. I can’t hear a bird’s chirp and say that is a finch; I don’t know the difference between one pine and the next; I can’t read the constellations in the night sky. It seems to me, in today’s world, that some of those skills should be a requirement for using the term. So I have hesitation there. I easily confess to a life-long affection for poetry and a continual involvement with it. I was ten years old in 1964 when poetry first bit me, a poem by Robert Frost, On Looking up by Chance at the Constellations, it begins
You’ll wait a long, long time for anything much
To happen in heaven beyond the floats of cloud
And the Northern Lights that run like tingling nerves.
And I was hooked. Pretty soon came Chinese poetry and another whole dimension and I was gone and across the border. Two books I’ve carried with me through everything in life, like 45 years, The White Pony and The Jade Mountain, both anthologies of Chinese poetry, the pages yellowing and brittle now, never have let them go.
I am less a poet than a believer in the Muse. So in answer to why am I poet, I’ll say because the Muse swept down on me at an early age and staked a claim. My longtime friend and muse, Christi Kochifos Caceres, is at the heart of a lot of the stuff I do. I wouldn’t be doing any of this without the inspirations she brings me.
Robert Frost, by the way. We have the same date of birth—March 26.
GER: Your latest collection is The Muse of Many Names, share with us how the collection was developed and the inspiration for the poetry.
RS: Robert Graves in his Foreword to The White Goddess says “The function of poetry is religious invocation of the Muse; its use is the exaltation and horror that her presence excites.” I relate to that, and the book develops from that theme, inspired by the joy and terror of the Muse, a homage to her, both in her ethereal and her physical forms, especially the last poem, “The Ten Commandments,” which in my testament translates as:
And the High One spoke these words saying, I am thy Sole Adored, who raised you from the grave and gave you breath when you were dead and voice to sing when you could not even speak; who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage:
Thou shall have no other Brides before me.
Thou shall not be deceived by hollow charms; for I am a jealous and green-eyed wonder: neither shall false spells beguile you; and neither shall you serve them; lest my anger rise against you and topple you from the face of the earth.
Thou shall sound the truth and truth alone like the bellow of the thunder upon a winter sea; for I will not hold him guiltless who takes my love and word in vain.
Thou shall honor the serpent.
Thou shall honor the vine.
Thou shall wield a Radiant Sword and slay my enemies with Abandon and Glee.
Thou shall play with fire.
Thou shall sow the whirlwind.
Thou shall remember the auburn hours of my outstretched arms and the mighty hammer of my fist upon the gloom of dawn.
Thou shall kneel down before no one save for me.
For I am thy Fury, thy Grace, thy Muse, who favors you beyond compare and above all others. Defy me not.
GER:Your poetry appears widely in the electronic small press. With corporate and academic control of the major presses many have described the internet movement as similar to the mimeograph movement of the 60’s and early 70’s. Can you describe how the internet has opened doors to both emerging and established poets to seek an audience for their work?
RS: I’m glad the hard questions are over.
I’m old enough to remember those days, and I agree that there’s a lot of similarity. I think one big difference between the eras is that many of the mimeos were geographically contained within a specific city, and sometimes even within a certain neighborhood, and often to a small number of coffeehouses and independently minded bookstores. If a blog can be considered a mimeo, then the reach now is international with an equal increase in the size and depth of the supporting environment—readership, small publishers, electronic editions, and clearing houses of information—New Pages and Duotrope to name just two.
For emerging poets, the internet is full of tremendous opportunity: knowledge of where the markets and outlets, the ease of communication (it used to be we had to send letters out and wait weeks and months for a response from a small press), more publishers, all the communities to join. It’s amazing what there is now compared to then.
I’m not so sure about established poets. Established academic poets, established popular poets, established counter-culture poets, who are these established poets anyway? If we could label them the mainstream, then I think that those poets still stick to mainstream ways, which is fine with me, because it leaves the big, deep waters to the rest of us.
A huge benefit of the internet are the vast libraries that are now available to us at a couple clicks: the myths and chants and prayers and poems among the sacred texts at http://www.sacred-texts.com/;the centuries of poetry that are archived at places like http://www.public-domain-poetry.com/; and national archives of poetry at http://www.rampantscotland.com/poetry/blpoems_index.htm as an example. What wealth to have.
GER: You are the editor of The Camel Saloon that has been described as the world’s original online poetry bar catering to dromedaries, malcontents, and the jewels of the world. How did you develop the concept?
RS: I was sitting three stools from the end of the bar at the local joint one afternoon in the early spring of 2010 when a number of thoughts came together. I had gotten a lot of my work published in the preceding couple of years and I felt that it was time for me to move on into something else. I was also becoming more and more personally interested in global free speech and self-expression issues and principles. And with the next sip, reminiscing about my friend Danny Harmon, rest in peace, and how he and I would go to one particular bar and work on poems together and try out lines not only on each other but to other customers and the staff sometimes, a very social place it was and it all felt, safe, to write there, in all the noise with the ball game on and the jukebox playing and all the bustle of the place. I was also in appreciation of some editors I had gotten to know to one degree or another, especially Chloe Caldwell at Sleep Snort Fuck for the courage it took her to create and run that space and Ross Vassilev of Asphodel Madness and Opium Poetry, for just the sheer energies of those sites and how much time he must’ve put it into it.
So out of all that came the resolution to start giving back, to start standing, and to do that in a social environment, and it felt like a bar would be a fine place to do all that in, especially since I was in one in the first place, online though. So I went to the Barnes and Noble and bought Google Blogger for Dummies, tried out some things, figured I had the technical bent to become good at the process, and opened the joint from the same barstool a couple weeks later.
Why the Camel? I was reading Persian poetry at the time, and camels appeared here and there in the poems, and there was an unrelated article I read on the value given the camel in Bedouin poetry, and it seemed fitting for a journey to have a mode of transportation, and so the Camel, which is real interesting animal in the first place as it turns out.
World’s Original Online Poetry Bar? Far as I can tell, it’s the one and only. Catchy phrase, ain’t it?
Dromedaries, malcontents and jewels of the world? Dromedaries because they can carry a load on their backs, the only beast of burden that beat the wheel at the transportation game, they know how to spit when offended, at the same time totally useful and adapted to a harsh environment. Malcontents, naturally poets. Raphaelle O’Neil of New Orleans is the original Jewel of the World, jewels of the world all of her tribal sisters. Invitations along the way are extended to ghosts, travelers and exiles.
And G. Tod Slone of The American Dissident also was in the mix of the Saloon, how he refuses to compromise his ideals and has given a forum to so many people who might not have otherwise found a place in the world for their voice. I wanted to make something that could redeem that same promise, to create a space in the world for voices.
GER: Books on Blog is an interesting venture in that you publish ebooks without using the standard formats such as kindle or nook. The presentation is simply outstanding within the confines of a blog format. How did this project come to fruition?
RS: A friend of the Saloon, Michael H. Brownstein, spent a recent summer in Viet Nam teaching English to university students. One of the lessons Michael taught revolved around the poems “In Bed” by Jeff Flemming and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. Then he had the students write their own poems, in English. Afterwards he asked me if the Saloon would be interested in publishing the poems. The results and the whole story were way too big and fun for a post, and deserved something more permanent. The Saloon at the time included a concept for special editions titled The Eye of the Needle, and that’s where the collection was placed, First Poems from Viet Nam at http://theeyeoftheneedlevietnam.blogspot.com/
Something in producing First Poems with Michael reminded me of a couple collections issued by City Lights in the Pocket Poets series, Red Cats (1968) and Nine Dutch Poets (1982). So I was sitting three stools from the end of the bar at the local joint one afternoon with my son Morgen and I brought up the subject of publishing electronic chapbooks at the Saloon in a serial mode. His encouragement tipped me from the consideration of the series into the actual doing of it. Darryl Price was the first Saloonatic to take the Saloon up on the project. The newest issue, Number 42 in the series, is authored by that remarkable woman who runs Propaganda Press, Leah Angstman. The whole series is linked here: http://booksonblogtm.blogspot.com/
During his time in Viet Nam, Michael became aware of the terrible environmental and human damage done by the US military’s Agent Orange bombings. He’s committed to helping right those wrongs and has a couple sites highlighting the issue. The home of his effort can be found here: http://www.projectagentorange.com/ and there is a companion poetry site here: http://projectagentorange.com/wordpress/.
GER: Why are you a born again dissident?
RS: I mean dissident in two ways. First, how wiki describes it as people “who write and distribute non-censored, non-conformist samizdat literature.” That’s not a bad description for the denizens of the Saloon in general. Second, as someone who takes a stand against violations of human rights. One of the Saloon’s stands is support for the imprisoned Chinese poet Zhu Yufu. The petition can be signed here: http://freezhuyufu.blogspot.com/
Speaking of dissidents, G. Tod Slone of The American Dissident was permanently banned from his local library for no apparent reason last summer. Permanently banned. From a library. Unbelievable. The Saloon has been active in that affair too. More on that here: http://sturgisbansdissident.blogspot.com/
Born-again as a new commitment to principles and ideals that I had neglected for a number of years and as a public statement of personal belief in the Muse.
GER: Tell us about Poets Democracy.
RS: Christi Kochifos Caceres invented Poets Democracy. In one form, it’s the spiritual nation for the individuals Plato excluded from his Republic and a place of sanctuary for exiles. In another form, it serves as a small publisher (http://poetsdemocracy.com/). It’s a river, a bar at night, wine, a tone of light, a bamboo grove and a thing to come. And best thing yet, it’s the home of A Cup of Storm: Love Letters from a Sinner, the first book of poems by Taufiq bin Abdul Khalid, who is the 21st Century incarnation of Rumi, hands down.
GER: What poets have inspired you over the years?
RS: These days Woeser inspires me the most. She’s a Tibetan dissident and the book I like is A.E. Clark’s translation and selection of her work called Tibet’s True Heart. Rimbaud I have always liked a lot. Then the traditional Chinese poets. Russian poets, especially Bella Ahkmadulina, especially her Volcanoes, especially the verse W.H. Auden translated as:
What future did you assume,
What were you thinking of and whom
When you leaned your elbow thus
Thoughtlessly on Vesuvius?
I like women poets in general. Early on, the beats, go figure.
GER: Your photographs appear on the masthead of The Camel Saloon. Is there any interaction between your art of photography and your poetry?
RS: I am using the camera to get at nature that I can’t get to through words. So it’s less interaction than a substitution. I’m still new to lens work, but I am carrying the idea that the camera is a prosthetic voice for me, if a picture is worth a thousand words.
GER: What projects are you currently working on?
RS: I am working on publishing a collection of poems by Russell Jaffe, from Iowa City. He’s got this dangerous concept of making poetry interactive, of having the audience or the reader fill in predetermined blanks in poems. For instance, the reader selects his or her own adverb to fill in a line here, or a childhood memory to fill in a blank here. I saw him perform in early summer of 2012 at the Midwest Small Press Festival in Milwaukee and just went wow. Then later I happened to be in the Windy City when he was doing a reading at The Beauty Bar on West Chicago Avenue and he just had the crowd in his palm. Three stools from the end of the bar I asked him if he’d like to join Poets Democracy and he said yes. Coming soon, his This Super Doom I Aver. After that, I need to find another bar because I don’t have a’s next yet.
Very interesting, Russell, and thanks much for the mention! You are a very rare person—poet or other—to stand up for the freedom of speech of those who you don’t really even know. That’s what you’ve done and are doing for me regarding the Sturgis Library permanent trespass order issued because of my written criticism.
I especially liked this remark: “That’s a term [i.e., poet] I duck and dodge, poet, because I’m not very prolific and I don’t work on it as a craft on a daily basis. I looked up definitions for the word today and none seemed to really fit. For myself, writing poetry doesn’t make me a poet.”
For me too, “writing poetry doesn’t make me a poet.” Sadly, most poets probably think the contrary. The poet is often mythologized [by poets of course and to their benefit] as Nietzsche-like supermen and superwomen adorned with laurels and even chevrons on the sleeve. Yet poets I’ve observed and even encountered, including famous laureates and Beats, seem a lot more like Joe Average—herd creatures, rarely if ever willing to act alone and NEVER acting in a way that might hurt their poet careers, ladder-climbing et al. Yet should poets be careerists? And rare is the poet that seems to give a damn about issues of freedom of speech. That’s been my experience.
I liked your “Ten Commandments” and would publish it if you sent it my way. “Thou shall play with fire./ Thou shall sow the whirlwind.” How many poets dare do either of those things? Not many at all. None in the ranks of the academic/literary established order!
As for poets, you might wish to try the sonnets of Albrecht Haushofer, an arrested and incarcerated Nazi by the Nazis and murdered by them in 1945. His brother found Albrecht’s body two days later and the crumpled sonnets in his pocket. My favorite is of course Francois Villon, who dared rage against the reigning Catholic autocrats in Paris in the 1400s. Few are the poets who dare!
NewPages, btw, refuses to list The American Dissident. What other journals does it prohibit?! You mentioned certain databases of poetry. One must, however, wonder how many poets are excluded from those bases. One must also wonder how many poets throughout the ages remain completely vanished. Were any of those vanished poets good? Depending on one’s definition of “good” of course, we might believe the answer to be yes, especially if they were like Villon, whose poetry was rescued a century later from total anonymity by another poet.
Anyhow, nice interview! Again, it is sad that you are somewhat unique in your OPENNESS. If only more poets like you would reject the hermetic, buffered enclosures that house them. [ Sorry, I couldn’t resist the ad below! 🙂 ]
G. Tod Slone, PhD and Founding Editor (1998)
The American Dissident, a 501c3 Nonprofit Journal of Literature, Democracy, and Dissidence
217 Commerce Rd.
Barnstable, MA 02630
Agreed: Writing poetry doesn’t make me a poet. I’m simply a driven writer. Well put.