Jan 10, 2024, 06:27AM

Carl Watson: A Conversation with a Reluctant Poet

Coming out of the poetry closet.

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There’s so much I could say about Carl Watson. A recent chat with Carl reveals a soul at odds with the world's myriad problems but somehow at peace with his own lot, plot, and slot in life. The photo above is a portrait of the poet as a young rapscallion. Living perhaps a carefree life in the 1980s Wicker Park, Chicago. He could be a shady carnival barker or serial killer second cousin kin to the Texas Chainsaw family tradition with that knowing grin. A subtle scythe-carrying reaper is a rakish rogue with strange secrets to tell. But there’s no evil intent here. It’s a weird comparison, like the neighborhood butcher shop grinding meat for a savory sausage recipe no one wants. Simply to the nature of poetry. It’s out there if you want it—the poetry, that is. We’ll leave the tube steak for another mystery moment in the meatloaf history of what being a poet means or what category it fills. No one knows for certain.

Carl Watson was an old crony who amazed me the first time I witnessed his power at a reading in St. Mark's Church in 1988 and still does. We quickly became allies and friends through the years that followed. I’ve published many of his poetry and prose books with Apathy Press Poets for over three decades. Beginning with chapbooks like Agoraphobia and Sexuality in the Land of Transient Hotels, The Green Man, among many others, and later paperback books starting with Beneath the Empire of the Birds in 1997. Two books of poetry, Stage Fright and After Thought, are available for your reading pleasure. Throughout the 1990s and early-2000s, besides the countless readings we did together, we also had a musical duo. Carl was Ramblin’ Roy Derien playing on the banjo, and I was Travellin’ Tommy Tucker. We were going nowhere fast.

Tom DiVenti: Let’s go back to the old photo of you in the Chicago days. Were you a poet then, doing readings and hanging with poets in the scene at the time?

Carl Watson: I lived there about 12 years, until 1988, when I left for NYC. I’d go away for periods of time, you know, traveling around Europe and Asia and whatnot. That photo was probably taken when I was going to college there.

TD: Didn’t you work for a while in a steel factory, smelting metal? The beginning of the end when the rust hit the belt.

CW: I worked in the steel mill in Gary, Indiana, soon after I got out of high school, so it would’ve been many years before I lived in Chicago and long before that picture was taken. It was before I moved to Portland. I lived in Portland and New Orleans before I moved to Chicago. Those mills along the southern edge of Lake Michigan were still going strong but started dying off soon after the rise of the automobile industries of Toyota and Honda and all the Japanese cars took over. American cars were pretty bad at the time.

TD: So, you lived on the shady side of Chicago?

CW: Well, there were many shady sides. But Wicker Park was then a rough neighborhood with cheap rents. All the artists lived there with the street gangs. It was a great neighborhood to live in.

TD: Were you going to poetry readings at that time?

CW: Yeah, right around the time that photo was taken, I was coming out of the poetry closet. Before that, I was furtively writing in little notebooks and hiding it away. I was going to open mics and readings, but I did a lot of creative stuff there. I met my musician friends Michael Zerang and Liof Munimula at a one-man play about Jack Kerouac, where they were doing the sound. It was in a theater. There was an open reading in the play, and I read there and that's how we became friends. After that I did a couple of gigs with them, and we collaborated. Still do. I wrote liner notes for them. I also did some stuff with dancers. I'm not sure there was music at the Green Mill at the time of the photo. I don't think the poetry had started there yet, either. The guy who started the poetry there, Marc Smith, I met him at the Get Me High Lounge, I think. It's all a blur.

TD: I remember reading at the Green Mill with you there on the Empire of the Birds book tour. It’s a beautiful bar. Do you have any new writing or books coming out?

CW: I have three manuscripts in the works: I'm working on another novel, and I’m getting to the end of my epic poem. I don’t have a title, yet it starts with the Big Bang and concludes with the end of the universe. It follows this unnamed character through a series of encounters and arguments, basically about humanity’s essential homelessness and what it’s like to live in a universe of uncertainty. I’m debating calling it a memoir.

TD: It sounds like life itself. It ends with the end.

CW: I’ve been working on it for many years.

Carl Watson, despite his reluctance, has become famous for his poetry and novels. He’s revered in France and is taught in colleges here in America. He’s performed all over the country and continues to be prolific and inspiring. Here’s a brief statement from Carl concerning his role in the pursuit of a poetic life. I urge and recommend anyone to check out his books. 

"Poetry, for me, was the most influential of art forms; it was once an engine for my spirit. I’ve always been a literary person as opposed to a visual one. I can’t draw, paint, or play an instrument well. Poetry was always the easiest thing for me to do. I don’t know what effect it has. I don’t think I’m changing anything, but maybe someone will read something I wrote some day and be inspired. I’m not avant-garde, experimental, or anything. My form is pretty old-fashioned, but I try to come at my subjects from a non-standard direction, so my work often seems dark or too psychological, which people don’t really like. Which makes me wonder why I do this. I could’ve been an astronaut, a deep-sea diver or a farmer. Writing doesn’t do much for my sanity or public life, either. I’m not a very public person, so maybe the poetry keeps me in touch with some vibrations in the cosmic matrix, or maybe it helps me understand others and myself a little better. I know it’s a form of exploration, and it changes how I react to the world, so that’s always worthwhile. Plus, it has been the source of many great creative friendships."


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