In the tradition of William Blake, Milton, and the Romantics, poet and author Oliver Sheppard presents a vision in verse of cosmic apocalypse and the total “breakdown of galaxies, stars …sensibility, perception, and logic.” With nightmarish flourishes, the reader is offered visions of the Archangel Israfel “cauterizing the sky like an open wound” against a backdrop of universal collapse and destruction. Included in this collection are also various experiments with language and form, as well as selections from other works, including Persephone Enthroned, a retelling of the ancient Greek myth about the Queen of the Underworld. In Destruction: Text I, Oliver Sheppard announces a dark vision of a nightmare reality coming apart at the seams.
Hello, Oliver! I’m definitely excited to dive deep into the world of Destruction: Text I. But first thing’s first. How and when did your passion for poetry (especially poetry with darker elements) come to be?
Poetry, probably age 11 or so. (Prose, much earlier, probably age 6 or 7.) My mom read to me a lot when I was very young, and a lot of children’s books were written in rhyme (Dr Seuss, etc) so I had been exposed to poetry on some level probably since birth. But my aunt had a very nice hardbound edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination from the Franklin Library of Mystery Masterpieces, with the darkly gorgeous Harry Clarke illustrations, and I found that at about age 11. There was no poetry in that volume but it led me to actively seek out the mysterious author’s poetical works, which I hoped would be just as morbid and good. I tried my own young hand at badly imitative verse shortly thereafter, doggerel about crypts and ghouls. (Thankfully such early attempts were long ago destroyed!) Then I discovered Andre Breton somehow by age 13, and got special permission to do a book report on him at school. The teacher didn’t know who he was, but she let me do it. I must have read about Poe’s connection to surrealism, and that led me to surrealism’s ideological leader, Breton, I guess. Anyway, reading Breton’s verse challenged my idea of what a poem was “supposed” to be, or what it could be. Most of my poetry is not Surrealist at all, ironically, but finding Poe and Surrealism liberated my imagination at that age, it started me on a chain of other literary discoveries, and I’d even say it helped lead me to a different outlook on the world in general.
Did you just say Edgar Allan Poe? 😀 Anyway, what would you say your creative spark was for this shadowy fire in the form of this poetry collection?
Destruction: Text I is a book I wish had published a decade ago. I guess the book is what used to be called analects or a florilegium — a collection of literary extracts. Except in this case the extracts are from my own as-yet unpublished manuscripts that I’ve had laying around for awhile. I have no shortage of ideas; my problem, as a writer, comes in seeing an idea through to its completion from its initial execution and on through revisions, editing, sustaining interest, and the like. Life stressors have had a way of inserting themselves in such a way that they’ve often interrupted what I’m up to. Money worries, relationship problems, family deaths, terrible depression, financial stress, crippling self-doubt, maybe my own lack of self-discpline — these are all things that just derail me completely. So, Destruction: Text I is actually an anthology of my own verse, stuff I’ve been hammering away at for some time, but in the book various projects have been organized into different sections. The first section of the book is from “The Apocalypse of Man,” a long poem I’ve worked on here and there over the years. There’s another section called “Persephone in Dis” that is from a similarly planned work about the Persephone/Kore myth, something that’s fascinated me since my late teens. “Functional Forms” is a section in the book that’s more postmodern in tone, featuring experimental poetry. The section called “Destruction” is filled with more personal verse.
I’m definitely deeply fascinated. Although the inspiration did stem from some hardship, I feel like life’s yin has a way of briging an unwavering sense of strength into our lives. What is the most common motif in your book and why did you select it?
The thematic glue that holds it all together is the idea of destruction. (Destruction is a thematic touchstone that recurs in what I write even outside of poetry.) It’s all mostly about collapse, the process of collapse, and what’s left over after the destructive process ends, whether it’s literal cosmic immolation, as in “The Apocalypse of Man,” or turmoil, separation, etc. in interpersonal relationships, as in the poem “December Elegy.” Uncertainty and instability — and collapse brought about due to instability (either in the physical universe, or in human relations) — are constant themes that reassert themselves throughout the book.
Through destruction, there is room to construct new things. I really do love this motif. What poets, artists, and/or creative minds influence your writing the most?
The poets associated with the Romanticist tradition, from Blake to Shelley, Byron and Poe — represent a kind of high watermark of poetry in the English language to me, and I feel they weigh most heavily on my own ideas about writing verse. The period from about 1780 until late into the 1920s, starting with Blake and ending with figures like Clark Ashton Smith and George Sterling, about a 150 year period — that was just an incredible time for poetry in English, to me. Those poets stuck zealously to form — they cared about meter, traditional rhyme schemes, stresses on syllables, and everything that comes with the stuffy old bits of poetic scansion that few poets pay any mind to these days. But they imbued their works with incredible imagery and emotional impact nonetheless, and in fact the strict adherence to form I think really helped them along in that regard, and it’s why I often try to stick to some sort of format as well. It’s a lost art. I think the sonnet may be the perfect poetic format; when I finish a sonnet I feel incredibly satisfied in a way I do not when writing other forms of verse. There are three sonnets in the book.
Myself, it was the aforementioned discovery of Poe at around age 11 that really did it for me as far as influences go. And the English translations of the Contintental Romanticists (like Goethe) and, later, the Symbolists and Decadents that I began discovering in my late teens — that all had a massive influence on me. Baudelaire, who is about on the same level for me as Poe, was a revelation. So were the other Symbolists and Decadents of the 19th century and fin-de-siecle period: Paul Verlaine, Stephane Mallarme, Maurice Rollinat, Georges Rodenbach. A lot of 19th century and early 20th century decadent poetry from Russia, Germany, Belgium, and France has influenced me. The Dedalus Books anthologies, where they go country by country through Europe and anthologize a lot of the best Decadent and Symbolist fiction from there — those collections are great, and have been a great source of inspiration. I’d love to be able to read a lot of these poets in their original language, but time may be working against me on that one. Just writing this, I want to add even more names! I love the English language, and I feel like great poetry explores the outer limits and possibilities latent in language that can’t be expressed in prose. Poetry can open up new doorways to perception and insight, like a psychedelic drug. But without the drug.
As I’ve gotten older, I enjoy more the poetry (and art) of William Blake, as well as the apocalyptic and “big picture” poets in general: John Milton; Dante; Hesiod, the old Greek world-builder and visionary; the _Astronomicon_ of Marcus Manilius (supposedly it was from Manilius’ _Astronomicon_ where HP Lovecraft got the idea of the Necronomicon). I use a quote from the Astronomicon as a preface in my book:
Men die by numbers, and by heaps they fall,
And mighty cities make one Funeral.
On groaning Piles whole huddled Nations burn,
And Towns lie blended in one common urn.
The poets that took a sweeping, cosmic, and doomy look at the world, poets that saw the world hovering in the shadow of final destruction or who saw it teetering precariously on the edge of nothingness/meaninglessness. End-of-the-world visionaries, doomsayer heralds. There’s a great nonfiction book by Morton Paley called _Apocalypse and Millenium in English Romantic Poetry_ that covers a lof of these bases and which, in its own way, has exerted an influence on me. Even the Book of Revelation has had an influence, though I’m an atheist. Other apocalypses, medieval grimoires, and apocryphal religious texts have held a fascination for me.
Lastly, well-written prose influences my poetry. Books like John Hawkes’s _The Cannibal_, Cormac McCarthy’s _Blood Meridian_, Carl Jung’s _The Red Book_, even Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish have wormed their way into my subconscious. Georges Bataille. Alejandra Pizarnik from Argentina, who is incredible. Kathy Acker. Kathe Koja. The poet Aime Cesaire. Some of the better writers from the horror tradition, like Thomas Ligotti or Clark Ashton Smith. I like “purple,” gothic, and ornamental prose that’s done well. The so-called “Graveyard Poets” of the 1700s that prefigured Romanticism have influenced me (Thomas Parnell’s “Night-Piece on Death,” for one). The imagery and atmosphere of silent film influences me. I’d even say Clive Barker has influenced me. Some music, like Rudimentary Peni or Current 93 or Killing Joke. I have some friends in bands, like World Burns to Death, that influence me. Cats influence me.
So many wonderful influences! How can one not be completely and utterly inspired? Onwards to the next question… What are some of the current developments in poetry you’ve noticed and how do you feel Destruction: Text I fits into these?
The Instagram poets have lately exerted an odd influence on me, but often they come across as epigraph writers or like they are writing excerpts from poems rather than fully realized works. I’m talking about the poets, mainly in their twenties, who will type out very short bursts of verse on an old typewriter, sign it, and then take a photo of it on their phone and post it to Instagram and/or other social media, and a few have made tens of thousands of dollars doing this (Book deals and the like.) It’s an interesting new development in the history of poetry. It seems as visual as it is literary: photos of poems. They’re obsessed with nostalgia for analog typewriters and heavy-weight cotton or linen typing paper that isn’t actually used much any more, a kind of parallel to the vinyl renaissance and all-things-analog in music. It almost seems like a way of cheating to lend a poem some gravitas it might not otherwise have. But unlike old poetry, the poems in this case are often incredibly short. They’re like what seems, to me, an epigraph at the beginning of a book of prose. I feel like maybe the writers doing the Instagram poetry thing grew up on Tumblr and Pinterest and saw shared jpegs or memes of literary quotes, and they think the quote on the jpeg is the entirety of the brilliance of the quoted work, so why not just write a brief excerpt like that, since that is what is shared and enjoyed on the web anyway? Except that “excerpt” is the whole thing! So some of this has influenced in me, in a way, and I’m curious to see where that trend goes, even if sometimes it seems like it’s more about the cult of personality regarding the writer as a stand-out character on the internet rather than the quality or content of the literary work. Sort of like being into Mozart as a personality but not being able to tell anyone what “Eine Kleine Nachtmusick” is — or loving the Cramps but not owning a single album or being able to tell you anything about the content or background of their songs. Superficial and vain.
The Instagram poets fire off photogenic bits of verse, usually only a few lines… Well, maybe I am jealous because I wish I could distill my thoughts so succinctly. It’s poetry for the Twitter and ADHD generation, that’s for sure. But is that a bad thing? Maybe not! At least it’s given a new generation of poets a unique voice. Even the haiku I’ve written tends to be grouped together along a common theme through which I find successive haikus necessary. (There’s a brief section of haiku in Destruction: Text I). Other than that, the “Functional Forms” section of Destruction: Text I is the most “modern” (PoMo?) of the verse in the book, inspired in some part by the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement of poets, especially by the poems of Bruce Andrews and others in that circle.
I certainly don’t see it as a bad thing. The world of poetry is ever-evolving, and that’s really inspirational–even if one doesn’t agree with some of the expression. So, are there any other projects on the horizon for you?
I’m finishing up my second collection of verse, Thirteen Nocturnes, which will be out any day now. That will be out via Ikonograph Press. Then, no more poetry books from me for awhile, and on to other projects I’ve had on the backburner. Namely, a nonfiction work about silent film vamp Theda Bara that I’ve been working on for about a year. I’ve uncovered a lot of original research about her that I’ve not seen in any book-length biography, and there is in fact a lot about her floating around in the current literature that is incorrect! (Sometimes from writers that ought to know better!) I’d like that book to be released by a publisher other than Ikonograph, as I intend to pack it with graphics from Bara’s heyday and make it a fun read. And there’s a horror novel that’s been twisting away in the inky black murk of my head for some time now. I want to get the full edition of my long poem The Apocalypse of Man out in its own book before 2019, but we’ll see if that actually happens. It needs a lot of work, yet.
Excellent! Are there any concluding thoughts you’d like to leave everyone with?
If you want to write, find the time to do it, even if it means feeling selfish or like you are letting other things go neglected. If you don’t find a publisher, take a cue from the DIY and punk movements and become your own publisher. Stand up for what you believe in; don’t let others push you around or define you. You deserve to express yourself and have an impact on the world. The annals of literature do not care about those who had good excuses not to write. There are no sections in literary anthologies about people “who could have done that” but didn’t, or “could do it much better,” but also didn’t. You’ll get criticism, and if it’s well-intended, take it thoughtfully, but slog on like an iron-plated, cold-blooded, steely-willed Nietzschean battleship through rough waters regardless, and don’t stop. Unexpected opportunities will begin to present themselves.
Wow, what an insightful conversation this has been, and these concluded words are very empowering. Thank you for taking the time to have the interview with me. I really appreciate your celebration of the beautifully dark elements in this life.
Thanks so much for having me here. And congratulations on almost 8 years at Poehemian Press! That’s a hell of an accomplishment!
Thank you. I can’t believe it’s been nearly a decade! 🙂
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