Q. & A. with Wim Coleman

Interview with Adelaide Books about Wim’s new book of poetry, I.O.U.:

Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in an official author’s bio?

i.o.u.-cover-3My father was a theater professor, director, playwright, and actor, so my very earliest memories are of attending rehearsals of plays he directed. In primal sort of way, this shaped how I’ve developed as a creative storyteller, whether I’m doing fiction, drama, or poetry. It also helped shape my growth as a person and how I view reality. Starting at the age of two, I watched actors slip in and out of character, oftentimes repeating the same actions and words over and over again, but in endless variations. These experiences left me with a lot of lifelong questions and obsessions. For example, what are the boundaries between life and performance, reality and imagination? How much of what we do every day and all the time is acting, and how much of it is really living—and is there really any difference? All my life I’ve observed those boundaries as constantly shifting. I’ve also come to see life itself as an act of creative storytelling.

Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?

Again, my roots are in theater, so instead of getting published, I watched my plays go into rehearsals and production. Putting words on a page and then turning them over to actors is a true acid test. Putting those words in front of an audience takes things to an even tougher level. The process has taught me to make hard demands of myself as a writer, and to invent many personal rules of thumb. For example: If what you write is hard to speak aloud, it isn’t as good as it should be. Keep writing and saying it over and over again until it tastes good.

What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?

It is called I.O.U., and it is my first collection of poetry. Although it’s a diverse and unruly bundle, it explores a single theme that permeates all of my writing, whether in fiction, nonfiction, drama, or poetry. That theme is Story (with a capital S). As my wife, Pat Perrin, and I once put it in a collaborative essay,

“Storytelling, like all art, like life, is an act of learning—of finding out. We are mistaken to assume that stories of transformation are only about transformation, mere illustrations. Instead, they are transformation itself, acts of practical alchemy, with the power to alter the reality of every receptive person they touch. (That’s why we must learn to recognize a hate-based tale in any garb, and admit that nothing holy feeds on pain.) As we live our stories and tell them, we learn what they are about … and they change … and they transform.”

That’s what all of my poetry is about. The title poem, “I.O.U.,” is a promise to stay true to this lifelong purpose.

How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?

I.O.U. is selection of poems I’ve written over the course of some 40 years. And some of the individual poems took almost that whole time to write, or at least to revise until that I was fairly happy with them. I don’t write many poems at one sitting. Only a few have popped out pretty much spontaneously. They often start that way, but the polishing can take years and years.

Most of my current writing, though, consists of ghostwriting. I do almost all of that in collaboration with my wife, Pat Perrin. We average more than 1000 words a day together doing that sort of work, sometimes much more. A couple of days ago we hit 7000 in order to make a deadline.

Do you have any unusual writing habits?

I suppose the most unusual aspect of my writing is that I do so much of it in collaboration. Pat Perrin and I have been writing together for more than 30 years, and we’ve published well over 100 books, including some that have gotten good attention, for example The Jamais Vu Papers (Crown, 1991), which has become something of a cult classic. Terminal Games (Bantam, 1994), which we wrote under the pseudonym Cole Perriman, was published in five foreign translations, discussed by literary critic N. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman, and taught in courses about literature and contemporary culture at several leading universities.

wim-drawing-1Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?

I draw when I can. I wish I had time to do a lot more drawing. I find it to be wonderfully meditative. A non-verbal form of artistic expression helps me to tap into brain areas that I don’t explore as much as I should. It actually makes me a better writer.

Authors and books that have influenced your writings?

The mind boggles! I don’t know where to begin, except to say that some of the thinkers who have had the most impact on me have not been poets, playwrights, and fiction writers, but philosophers, scientists, and historians. The psychologist Julian Jaynes’s 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has shaped my worldview in ways that impact my work (and my life) every single day. I believe that many other writers, especially poets, feel the same way about Jaynes. He offers a revolutionary view of history, psychology, and human nature that challenges all kinds of received wisdom. Jaynes is also very controversial, but his ideas have achieved greater widespread acceptance than his critics like to admit. I tend to notice that most of his detractors don’t seem to have bothered to read his book. Reading his Origin a few decades ago blew my mind and changed my world. I’ve been reeling from it ever since.

What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?

I’ve been moving back toward writing drama lately. Weirdly, this is in part due to Covid and the isolation it has wreaked on everybody, especially people in the performing arts. In mid-2020, I was invited to join a “Cyber Salon” of amazingly gifted people, including multi-talented actors, poets, directors, and playwrights. Because they haven’t been able to get together for live, in-person performances, they’ve started meeting on Zoom. I’m lucky and honored to have been invited to join them. Every week we present some of our work to each other. For the first time in years, I’ve been able to hear my dramatic writing read and interpreted by actors again. It has been truly thrilling—and of course, often scary. I’m currently writing a full-length play which I’m working on with the Salon, and which I’m not ready to talk about yet.

Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? Who reads and who should read your books?

I think my poetry (and my other writing) appeals to people who are hungry for stories and metaphors for our troubled times, for something beyond a steady diet of what currently rates as literary. I’m sometimes told that my work fills a personal and cultural need. I certainly hope so. My typical readers are well-read but are not necessarily academically inclined. They read primarily for enjoyment, information, and enrichment. They also enjoy a fair amount of mental stimulation.

Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?

Never finish your apprenticeship. What I mean is, never get complacent in your assumptions of “mastery.” When it comes to poetry, take time to experiment with technique—with rhythm, rhyme, meter, and various forms. Study examples of all of these techniques. They’ll force you to deal with language in ways you never considered, and to develop skills that go far beyond simple technique. Even if you never plan to write rhyming poetry, try your hand at sonnets, ballads, villanelles, and so forth. And when you’re experimenting, don’t be afraid to be bad. It is absolutely impossible to learn without making mistakes—including real whoppers!

What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?

I used to think Pat and I were the first and only people to say, “Write what you don’t know.” Now I realize that saying has been kicking around for a while, and that it gets said a lot these days. It’s excellent advice. The world has got plenty of writers turning in upon themselves and their personal experiences. There is always a dire need for writers who reach outward, who test their own boundaries, whose creative work (as all creative work should be) is an act of discovery. Always be learning about something. Stretch your brain. Read the news and lots of nonfiction. Learn about the world of ideas. Meet people outside your circle. You just might never suffer from “writer’s block” ever again. There’s just too much wonderful stuff out there to think about and experience. Life is rich.

How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?

I will only say that I read as much as I possibly can, and I wish I could read a whole lot more. Most of the books I read are nonfiction. I am currently reading The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality by Walter Scheidel. Not that I ignore fiction and poetry by any means. My reading last year included Milton’s Paradise Lost, Toni Morrison’s God Bless the Child, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind and the Willows, and an anthology of contemporary poetry called Legitimate Dangers. I’m eager to get back into re-reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, two towering and inexhaustible writers. I also read Shakespeare whenever I can; I’ve read everything in the canon at least two or three times. Oh, and the King James Bible.

What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?

One of the most common bits of advice a poet can get (or give) is “Find your own voice.” Instead, I look for other voices. I use my training as an actor and a playwright to try to create compelling and entertaining voices and characters. My poems tell stories. I also think that one of the key ingredients of a good poem is surprise. I try to bring surprise to my poems—surprise, thought, passion, and sometimes laughter.

Adrienne Rich once wrote, “A language is a map of our failures.” Poetry happens when words set us free from language. It is a liberation from unwitting collective prisons of thought and habit, for language binds us in more ways than we know. Fresh images, metaphors, and stories bring new vitality to our world of words and to our lives. I hope I contribute to that process of perpetual renewal.

I also agree with the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai that all poetry is political:

“This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality, and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea, it reflects politics.”

In these days when the forces of oligarchy, bigotry, ignorance, privilege, and autocracy threaten to consume America and much of the world, poetry keeps us alive to the value of freedom, democracy, equality, and human decency. Every poem is an act of resistance.

What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?

Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” Writers are weird people and these are weird times. And you no longer have to be like the proverbial lonely teenager sitting by the proverbial phone, waiting for some Grand Pooh-Bah to deign to publish your work (mixaphorically speaking!). The possibilities for sharing and promulgating what you write are like nothing that’s ever been imagined in human history. The world hasn’t seen an age like this since Gutenberg. Throw yourself into it. Don’t miss a minute of it.

wim-books-72-1

Amid the Ashes of the House of Commons — London, May 1941

From I.O.U., Wim’s new book of poems, available at Amazon.com.

To mark the end of the London Blitz 80 years ago this month (and also the end of the Trump presidency):

And Churchill wept as he saw his beloved House in ruins. 
—Vernon Bartlett 

Deliverance wears thus a mocking face, 
the last bomb of the last raid 
stabbing sharp and deep into our moral belly. 
How rapidly may men, unteachable from infancy to tomb, 
match long eroding centuries in ruin! 
As England sighs reprieve and licks her wounds, 
you creep amid the rubble toward the Speaker’s Chair 
now pulverized beneath smoking debris, 
inhaling the mortal residue of the Hun’s contempt
for norm and decency and truth and law.

I am a House of Commons man.

Here you first tested your youthful tongue and timbre,
your heavy but not very mobile guns,
urging a principled peace in the war against the Boer.
Heckled and prodded you were by riotous voices
as cacophonous as sirens and bomb blasts,
the warring factions kept from each other’s throats
solely by an invisible barrier of honor,
that inviolable corridor measured across by two swords plus one inch.
This never was meant to be a place of peace.

Upon your cheeks, twin tears cut rivers through the caking dust.
How shall you rebuild?
We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.
The law has ever carved
its own path through the dust of chaos;
men must forever stand aside in humbled awe
and follow its chosen course.
Words are the only things that last forever.
Change nothing, rebuild it as you left and lost it,
so that rivers of words may find their way again
amid moldering wonders of stone, mortar, and timber,
vainglorious and doomed.

I am a House of Commons man.

The carnivorous sheep of the Reich
are done with grazing the bitter weeds of England;
the herd skulks its way toward fatal pastures of the East.
Let Britain prevail;
let the council of Europe join familial hands
and America bring forth her kindred vengeance;
let the sun set forever on the tyrant and his monstrous evil;
let him taste the bile of his transgression;
let presently burst from these coals the cleansing and devouring flame.
The Blitz has ended.
Let the War begin.

*

(Appeared in Dissident Voice, January 20, 2019.)

Coming up on April 27 …

“Page 158 Books is pleased to present a digital event in partnership with Adelaide Books featuring three authors from the North Carolina Writers’ Network. Join us for a conversation with Wim Coleman, L. C. Fiore, and Judy Hogan. Please note that this is a digital author event and will be hosted on our Crowdcast channel.”

Sign up to attend on Facebook here!

For Earth Day …

Even though it’s getting late in the day, I find myself thinking about my new series of watercolors about feeling our connections with the natural/organic world we live in.

These are watercolors on a gessoed surface, painted with brushes, fingers, rags, Q-tips, whatever is at hand. The images are based on drawing sessions in several locations over past years, on some sketches made outdoors, on the organic qualities of the fiber sculptures I’ve worked with over a long period of time, and on the experience of simply living in the world.

Pat

The Cleansing (Holy Monday) — a short play

Characters:

Mary and Martha
Jesus
Judah Ben-Hur

The scene is the Mount of Olives; Jesus sits on a stone bench staring forward; Mary enters, followed by Martha.

MARY (to MARTHA).
I’ve found him.

MARTHA.
Where?

MARY.
Sitting right here like nothing happened.

MARTHA (to JESUS).
What do you think you’re doing?

JESUS.
Watching.

MARY.
For what?

Jerus-n4i

Temple of Herod, Holyland Model of Jerusalem.

JESUS (pointing).
The Temple is about to fall; soon
not one stone will be left upon another.
Watch here and see for yourself.

MARTHA.
Nonsense.

MARY.
Let’s run.
Your disciples have fled already.

JESUS.
Why run? What’s the danger?

MARY.
After what you did just now?

MARTHA.
You’re joking!

MARY.
The Temple guards—
they’ll find you here and take you!

JESUS.
No. Not today. My betrayal is still
four days away—I’m safe till then.
Do you know how my Father makes figs?

MARY.
No parables, please!

MARTHA.
Not right now!
Let’s hurry home to Bethany
where we will all be safe
and you can tell your stories
and I can make you dinner
while she sits at your feet
doing nothing as usual.

Jacopo_Tintoretto_008-2

Tintoretto: Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary.

JESUS.
Since you’re curious, I’ll tell you.
My Father sinks his mighty hand
into a soft shaft of sunlight
as if it were riverbank clay—
like this, you see? And he seizes
a warm, pliant fistful of it
and squeezes it tight—like this.
See how the yellow light
oozes out between my fingers?
He holds the sunlight fast
a little while—just like this—
then slowly loosens his grip
to reveal a ripe and luscious fig
that tastes just like the sun.

(JESUS opens his hand to reveal a coin)

MARTHA.
But I don’t see a fig.

MARY.
I see a coin with Caesar’s face on it.

(JUDAH BEN-HUR enters.)

Denarius_of_Tiberius_(YORYM_2000_1953)_obverse

Denarius of Tiberius, known as the tribute penny.

MARY (to JUDAH).
Go away!

MARTHA.
He’s innocent!

MARY (to JUDAH).
You’ve got the wrong man!

JUDAH.
Foolish women—what do I look like?
A priest, a Temple guard, a stooge
of Herod or Pilate, either one?

MARTHA.
Who are you, then?

JESUS.
I’ll tell you.
His name is Judah, a son of Hur—
an angry soul, filled with hate.
The friend he most loved in his youth
betrayed him into Roman slavery;
he was chained for three years
to a galley’s oar; but he won freedom
and became a Roman citizen;
yet still he remains a Jew—
the most bitter Jew in Israel.

MARY.
You’re bitter yourself today.

Miracleofthefig

Byzantine icon of Jesus cursing the fig tree.

JESUS.
So I am. I wish I knew why.
(to JUDAH)
I killed a tree this morning
an innocent fig tree just outside
the city gates. A strange thing to do.

MARY.
It bore no figs.

MARTHA.
It’s not the season.

JUDAH.
You’re a carpenter, and a carpenter’s son;
that wasn’t the first tree you’ve killed.
Learn to kill men, my Lord.
It’s the one thing I have to teach you.

JESUS.
Can you teach me to kill men without rage,
the way a carpenter kills a tree?

JUDAH.
What you did just now at the Temple—

1024px-El_Greco_13

El Greco: Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple.

JESUS (interrupting).
A mistake. The Temple now
belongs to Caesar, not my Father.
I had no business there at all.
Its time is over—in moments now
a breath of icy love will send it
crashing under its own weight,
the weight of this world’s greed.

JUDAH.
The Temple won’t fall—not till
you bring it down yourself.
The moment is now—you mustn’t wait!
The money changers’ backs are stinging
from the whippings you gave them,
and they scuttle about like scorpions,
grubbing up the coins you spilt
when you overturned their tables—
denarii, drachmas, darics, shekels,
the currencies of all the world
jumbled in gibbering heaps,
worth nothing until they’re sorted
and weighed anew. All commerce
is suspended—and all authority,
the power of priests and Rome alike.
The time is here—this very moment—
to cast off the yoke of Rome,
to lift up the poor and crush the rich,
and make of Israel the Kingdom
that you yourself have promised.

JESUS.
And you’ve raised three legions
to bring me victory. Right now
they mingle like cutpurses among
these millions who have come
to Jerusalem to celebrate
the Passover.

JUDAH.
How did you know?

ramon novarro-1

Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, 1925.

JESUS.
Three years you followed me
with thousands of men with knives
in their belts. I wasn’t supposed
to notice? While I sought farmers
and fishermen and tax collectors
and mothers, wives, and harlots,
you gathered soldiers. You trained them
in the lava beds—to guard and strike
with their fists, to cut and thrust
with javelins and swords,
an army of Galileans styled
like Romans to destroy the Romans.

JUDAH.
Your army—the Kingdom’s army.

JESUS.
Are you sure they are enough?
Do they have spears that hurl themselves
from tunnels forged from iron
and tear men’s bodies to pieces?
Do they ride winged chariots
that drop fire from the sky,
consuming cities faster than thought?
Can you make the winds themselves
breathe writhing and devouring death
into your enemies’ bones?
Can you unleash the power of the sun?
Do you have an arm like God?

JUDAH.
Rabbi, why all these riddles?
Why do you brood and wait?
Rome’s power is puny beside yours.
Rise up now, work miracles
to liberate Israel—the kind
I’ve seen you work a hundred times.

JESUS.
Miracles? What miracles? Tell me.

JUDAH.
You’ve healed the sick and lame,
the palsied and the paralyzed,
cast out devils, made blind men see;
you cured and cleansed my own
dear mother and sister of leprosy;
and Lazarus, these women’s brother—
he died, you gave him life again;
and when a multitude was hungry
you fed them, all of them.

200px-FeedingMultitudes_Bernardo

Bernardo Strozzi: Feeding the Multitudes.

JESUS.
Wait—I fed a multitude, you say?

MARY.
Of course you did.

MARTHA.
You know you did.

JESUS (to JUDAH).
Were you there?

JUDAH.
Right near you, yes.

JESUS.
So tell me—how did I do it?

JUDAH.
My Lord, everyone knows—

JESUS.
No—not what you’ve heard,
but what you saw and felt and did.
I want to hear it.

JUDAH.
Five thousand gathered by the sea
to hear you speak—but where
was food enough for them to eat?
Two hundred denarii would not buy
enough bread for that multitude.

JESUS.
And you—did you lack food as well?

JUDAH.
No. I’d brought bread of my own,
and so had others, but not most;
thousands more were waiting, hungry.
Then Andrew found a boy who’d brought
five loaves of barley and two fishes.
You told the multitude to sit
and gave thanks to your Father;
you broke the bread and gave it to some,
and you gave away the fishes,
and then … Oh, Lord, I am ashamed.

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
I’d had no wine, and yet
I became drunk—drunk and hungry.
I tore my own bread, stuffed my mouth,
and then …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
The old man next to me—
his hunger became mine,
his wrinkled lips, his aching belly,
I felt his craving as my own.
And on my other side, a mother
unfed, her baby at her breast—
I became her too, I felt the grip
of her baby’s gums pulling her dug,
felt the dryness inside her.
And then … Oh, Lord …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
I rose stark mad to my feet, reeling
with bounty and munificence,
and tore my bread and crammed
some in the old man’s hand, then
in the mother’s too, and staggered
giving amid the multitude
while others, as drunk with love as I,
reeled all around me, giving
and receiving much, much more
than all their fill. And then—
and then when it was all done …

MARY.
Twelve baskets were left brimming
with bread and fishes …

MARTHA.
… the leavings after
the five thousand were sated.

JUDAH.
But I … Oh, Lord …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
Such horror of great brightness!
I was sick to my soul, lost to myself—
lost, all lost, the son of Hur,
his lonely desire, the solitary
warrior thirsty for vengeance,
all gone, my precious life was gone.
I ran down to the Galilean shore
and retched up all I’d eaten until
I was alone in my own skin
and not filled with a multitude
made drunk with lovingkindness.

(JUDAH is weeping.)

JESUS.
Leave me now, Judah—go.
You have chosen another way.

JUDAH.
How can you be so indifferent?

JESUS.
What do you think I am?

JUDAH.
You are my King, Israel’s King,
much mightier than Caesar,
more splendid even than Solomon—
a king to rule the world forever.

JESUS.
I am a door. A door is indifferent;
it makes way to everyone.

(MARY and MARTHA begin to reel about, as if drunken.)

MARY.
What’s this?

MARTHA.
What’s happening?

MARY.
The ground—it rolls and shakes.

MARTHA.
I can’t stay on my feet.

MARY.
I can’t either.

(JESUS and JUDAH seem undisturbed by the forces felt by MARY and MARTHA.)

JESUS.
Dance, then.

MARTHA.
Yes!

MARY.
If we can’t stand, we’ll dance!

(MARTHA and MARY dance wildly to silent music.)

Wallace_Ben-Hur_cover

Original edition of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

JESUS (to JUDAH).
All love is cold and open.
I am the open door of love;
to pass through, open yourself,
go naked through the cold,
or else consign yourself forever
to the Kingdom of Caesar.

JUDAH.
Forever?

JESUS.
Each moment is forever;
the Temple is always standing;
the Temple is always falling.

MARY (pointing).
Look!

MARTHA (pointing).
Look there!

MARY.
The Temple!

MARTHA.
It’s dancing too!

MARY.
No, it’s falling!

MARTHA.
Its white stone frowning faces,
its porticoes, pinnacles, ramparts …

MARY.
… all breaking, breaking
like twigs in children’s hands!

MARTHA.
The sacred veil tears clean in two …

MARY.
… the Holy of Holies now
stands revealed …

MARTHA.
… now disappears
into the vaults below …

MARY.
… and dust clouds billow skyward!

MARTHA.
The air rings with falling stone …

MARY.
… the thunder and music of love!

MARY.
Let’s go there—before the dust settles!

MARTHA.
Yes, we’ll dance among the clouds!

(MARY and MARTHA hurry away.)

JESUS (to JUDAH).
Hatred is soft and sweet;
love is hard and bitter.
My time in this place is done.
The friend I love most of all
will soon betray me out of love—
cold and indifferent love,
strong and unyielding love,
the biting kiss of love.

(JESUS leaves; JUDAH stands alone, facing forward.)

JUDAH.
But the Temple—it still stands!

END OF PLAY.

—Wim