Poet Interview #49: Dustin Pickering

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? At what age did you start writing? Have you always written poetry? Who/what first inspired you to start writing? Who are your favorite poets?

When I was very young, I participated in a class assignment to paint a picture. I enjoyed the act of finger painting so much I changed my career direction from ‘shark hunter’ to ‘artist’. When I was in third grade, I was heavily bullied by classmates. The teachers instituted a ‘peer pressure’ program where one student’s misdeeds got the whole class punished with time out after school ended. I made a point to get the class in trouble continuously. The teachers pulled together and suspected I was mentally retarded because of my behavior. I knew better myself, but consented to an IQ test. The test revealed I had a genius IQ. The public school I was attending admitted they had no learning track for me. I had severe developmental issues due to a troubled background, but was apparently sharper than my peers. I wrote a story in first grade that inspired a teacher to assign the class to write their own stories. It was about a young man who loses a wheel off his red wagon, and finds it behind a tree at the end of a day of searching. I never intended to be a poet…that happened after my sophomore English teacher recommended Sylvia Plath. I became obsessed with her poetry because I felt her worldview was akin to my own and that her poetry was enigmatic, stimulating, and expressive. I wanted to learn to do that myself. I spent hours after school at the Rosenberg Library in Galveston, an old library with a great rare books section. I read Stephen Dunn, Nietzsche, Leonard Cohen, Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Bob Dylan, and later in high school I carried John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I eventually read the epic three times. I began to feel my fate encroach on me. This was simply what I must do, at all costs. Over the years, I have devoured philosophy, especially those who were mentioned, by Nietzsche, Heraclitus, Jung, Freud, Marx, Aristotle, Plato, J. S. Mill (who led me to appreciate liberty, at the time of reading his famous tract I had doubts about the sort of liberty he discusses– we live in an age distrustful of freedom), Sartre (whose demanding humanism led me away from Christian thought concerning a loving deity who bore your choices with you). I devoured existential thinkers especially. Dostoevsky entered my literary life my senior year. The class discussed his extraordinary man theory in detail at my instigation.

I also read Anthony Storr, British psychologist who writes about the psychopathology of creativity, and began to see that trouble and illness was a strong part of the creative impulse. Artists often convince themselves that they must say something to the world– express some fundamentally lacking truth that others miss. I saw parallels to my own life in many creative persons. Jung, for instance, had a serious breakdown with dreadful visions that he later equated with predictions of the world wars. I suffered tremendous isolation and delusion about the time of 9/11. At the time, I read the front page of the Houston Chronicle, all of it, on a daily basis and tracked the silliness of Congress on C-Span nearly 24/7. It was an obsession that taught me nothing.

My favorite poets vary but some of my favorites tend to be Frederico Garcia Lorca, Frank O’Hara, John Milton, Audre Lorde, Stephane Mallarme, and honestly, many Biblical texts are superb. In this age, we distrust freedom and despise religion. Much of our world has moved an entirely different direction than religion set us towards. Religious relics carry contrasting meanings than they did originally, and religious sites are being destroyed or replaced for capitalism and profit. The Jordan River is draining quickly and being filled with sewage, and some places honored by Muslims are expected to be destroyed by the Saudi government for profit. Religion, absent of dogma, carries a profound truth we are losing. I am not religious myself, but the fundamental truths of Ecclesiastes, Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, and the profound imagery of the Genesis Creation story are unsurpassed. The Catholic Church revised the Biblical texts for accessibility in recent years. I am one to say we can’t know our future if we neglect our origin. Ultimately, the modern world wants to abolish suffering and feels it has the means to do so. Medicine and healthcare developments, new social sciences, studies of human behavior, etc. have led us to believe we can perfect ourselves and rid the world of suffering. I am a humanist, but I fear this conclusion is error.

How do you first start writing a poem? Does it come to you out of the blue, or do you have a set time where you meet with your Muse each day and let the words just … come? Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poetry?

Stream-of-consciousness, usually. Sometimes lines circulate in my head, I work them briefly. A mood engulfs me and I know writing is at hand. My whole being has changed, almost flip-flopped over the years. It probably will do so again. I studied political theory on my own for years, hoping that the answer was there. I made flirtations with sociology, read a lot of psychology (Freud especially, Civilization and It’s Discontents was a big push ahead for me), and kept abreast of secular thought to my best ability. My poetry began with suicidal ruminations, despair and attacks on the world ( I often ripped off lines from Nirvana songs directly), developed abstract intuitive approaches, and gradually began to take its own forms. My book The Daunting Ephemeral is full of secret heartbreak, that source of longing. I even invent my own theology with the chapbook “The Vanishing Point” where I discuss moving away from the universe’s holiness, of reaching a point where the sense of sanctity vanishes. However, I express this isn’t a matter of choice but the decision and will of the Divine Feminine.

Most of the time, these thoughts emerge from the poems themselves as they are being composed. I don’t plan in detail. I don’t subscribe to an aesthetic or “class” of poetry. I do not intend to inform, provoke, or distract the reader. My goal is to share the mind, for a mind to meet another mind. This approach has not made me famous. Today’s poetry is activist, niche markets, and I simply don’t fit in. I honestly get tired of looking for publishers when most of them want “gay, transgender” or “feminist” slants. I respect their right to open those markets and encourage these underappreciated talents to submit, but I am literally placed out. I am neither a traditionalist nor a revolutionary in poetry. I am one who embraces contradictions as they are essential for the human personality to develop. My poetry is one of personality, of archetypes and shimmering illusions, of love and woe, of lust’s false glamour, and of the emptiness and existential dread of our paradoxical and demanding world.

How has the experience of being an editor and publisher at Transcendent Zero Press and Harbinger Asylum influenced your own work, if at all? Could you give us some background on how TZP came to fruition and what your aspirations are with the press moving forward?

Harbinger Asylum started when I realized I needed to get my own writing seen. No one would come to me. My foot had to get in the door. I called my other failed artist friend, Alex, who is now the political columnist. I said, “Alex! We will never make it as artists if we don’t push our own way.” Octavio Paz began a literary journal very young with other poets from all over the world. He won the Nobel Prize. I actually put a quote of his on the front cover of issue one: “Each poem is time, and burns.”

Transcendent Zero Press was my default name. I made this name up when I was 16. It was going to be my punk band. Once again, Alex would be the drummer. You can ask him about this. I still have the folder where I drew our future logo. I drew it without thinking on its meaning. The meaning came later. The name came from a word I found in the dictionary combined with the name of a big hit that year by Smashing Pumpkins, “Zero”. I have read some of Corgan’s comments on his lyrics and I think he undervalues his poetic talent.

We have published many books since 2013. The goal is to develop relationships and community. At this point, a living poet finding a place at a big 3 publisher is, well, a giant dream. I have no expectations. We nominated three of our writers for Pulitzers last year, and one for a Griffin, but no wins. I plan to continue submitting to these major prizes, sharpening our editing skills to make books professional quality, and finding the best poets and writers out there. We are working with Faheela Hassan, called “Iraq’s Maya Angelou”, and we are still touching up Lyn Coffin’s translation of The Adventures of a Boy Named Piccolo. Lyn recently won the Saba Prize in the Republic of Georgia. This prize is Georgia’s version of the Pulitzer. Lyn is a recognized poet and translator.

We want to expand to other genres besides poetry. We will continue to release poetry collections, but we are seeking literary criticism too. I would be interested in scholarly approaches to Sylvia Plath’s work especially. I recently published Troy Camplin’s novella Hear the Screams of the Butterfly. The book is based on The Sorrows of Young Werther, Romanticism’s first big achievement. Camplin is a multidisciplinary scholar, libertarian thinker, and carries three degrees in different fields.

Working with other poets in the contemporary world has shown me the variety of art available. I don’t know about you Scott, but there are certain people who are ‘artists’ with no efforts to show– they are called ‘hipsters’. I find these kids classless and pretentious. Some people have confused me with this type of person when I say I am an artist. I have dealt with ridicule for this. I guess being on community radio stations, having interviews from the local NPR’s The Front Row, being involved in Houston’s most popular poetry reading series Public Poetry (endorsed by Robert Pinsky), helping circulate poetry from bestsellers like Melissa Studdard among others, publishing countless collections, hosting readings and events all year, and creating my own artwork which can be seen on my Facebook, isn’t good enough to classify myself as artist to certain types. Frankly, if you are doing nothing, politely step out of the way of those who are actively in pursuit.

I don’t have as much time for my own poetry, novels, music, and visual art as I wished due to endless promotion of the multiple people in our TZPress family. Still, I see no ROI from these books but I am proud for putting out work I consider historically valuable. Art reminds us of our humanity and ages to come peruse the works of yesterday with open eyes.

You recently published a new poetry collection, Salt and Sorrow. What inspired this book, and how do you feel now that it’s been released into the world?

I feel the usual failure. The publisher said a poet of my caliber should see 100 sales in three months. I asked people to review the book. One responded he would, and then after reading the book it was returned with a note that the critic could not review it because of his own religious inclinations. The book approaches spiritual questions in a traditional, but creative, light. The publisher, Kiriti Sengupta, specifically requested I write 25 poems of less than ten lines on the subject of the Biblical God. I told him that was a challenge, but I would take it. Two hours later, the rough draft was in his hands. He made a few suggestions, and I took some of them. The book was better for it.
We sold 20 copies! Now, months later, the book isn’t selling at all. We used the promotional tagline, “Bringing the God of the Bible in the world!” I thought such a provocative statement would draw a lot of interest. The poetry, I think, is profound. I dedicated the book to Jessica Lee Cain, a classmate who disappeared nearly twenty years ago. Her killer came forward and showed the police where he buried her. After a few months, it was confirmed that she was found. I thought it over– how can I tribute this innocent, gentle girl who meant so much to so many? She was an acquaintance of mine too. She hung out at our band practices and even asked if I would give her guitar lessons. I circulated the book’s release, mentioned the dedication, and it seems the book did not perform as expected.

I also wrote a poem, published at Section 8 Magazine, dedicated to her. It was published at Yellow Chair Review as well.

Are you on Facebook or Twitter or any other social media? Does that fit into your writing life, and if so, how?

Honestly, social media is the fucking stupidest thing ever. We live in a free country. Yet, a potential employer can snoop on me through social media and refuse to hire me based on whatever arbitrary notion they come up with. I use Twitter to discuss events, book releases, and read on news in publishing. I do have a Facebook account. I use it to bash Republicans, stir conversations on art, share my new writing and songs, connect with other artists, and keep track of our fans through the TZPress and Harbinger Asylum fan pages.

Social media is worse than face-to-face contact. In real life, if you piss me off I can knock you out and you know it. So you don’t deliberately piss me off for amusement.

Ha! Where is that shitty freedom we were promised? And who stole it? Employers can cut you out for whatever reason they see fit, and I have seen it happen. One friend was fired, asked to pack and leave that day, and was not told why. Ha! Right to work!

This country is a joke that only the wealthy understand.

Do you have a writing group or community of writers you share your work with? Who are they? What are you reading right now?

So I am skeptical of the future. I am reading Christine Boyka Kluge’s work now. She is published by Bitter Oleander Press, out of New York. Poetry presses won’t fire you for outspokenness, at least. I recently read several other BOP titles. I am a big fan of theirs at the moment.

I am reading Anthony Storr’s The Dynamics of Creativity which is a discussion of various psychological ailments and how artists use creative work to overcome them, sometimes working themselves to death. Robert Schumann tried to drown himself, Balzac hated his mother for abandoning him to a wet nurse when he was young, Einstein and Newton suffered from schizoid personality, and the list is endless. Storr is fond of Kafka, Churchill (who was as weird as any other), Freud, and Newton. His background is Freudian psychology. He candidly admits, and quotes Freud’s agreement, that creativity can not be explained by psychoanalysis alone. I feel a certain relatedness to some artists, especially those who had parental issues and maladaptive traits. I was separated from my mother completely at age two by Mississippi courts, my dad exited the picture and we have had a rocky relationship since, I was abused by my stepmom, my peers seem to have fundamentally loathed me altogether, and I simply have not had it easy. I was beaten up in public schools, lost fights when I tried to defend myself, and sometimes authorities sided with the bullies. I live in poverty now due to mental illness. I have been single since I was sixteen. I have loved one woman deeply since she was 14, and now she is nearly 30 but there is absolutely no interest on her part. We are great friends though, and she will always be special to me. I am a lightning rod for trouble. I am nothing, but the best that can be said of nothing is that it cannot die.

What words of encouragement can you offer other poets who are trying to get their work noticed?

Don’t kill yourself. That’s been tried too many times and is not very effective. Forget the world– it expects so much of you, and it won’t deliver for your desires. Why should you waste your time with its petty ideas of “should-be, would-be”? Forget fame. Fame is stupid, it kills people (Kurt Cobain comes to mind), and it offers no consolation. It is a stupid consolation prize for troubled minds.

Work out your own thoughts. Art is something deeply personal. Too much recognition can kill and so can too little.

Collect odd experiences. Live a lot. Travel. Enjoy. Breathe. Talk to interesting people. Open up about your concerns and discuss intimate things with close friends. Read a lot. Question what you read. Learn to compare texts. If you get bored, find something new to do. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone. If you know a lot about a subject, maybe drop it for a while and look into something new. Learn a new language and become a translator.

It is especially important to search out contemporaries. Write to poets you admire. Tell them you think highly of them and say why. Open conversations. Don’t be afraid to ask for collaborations. The worst answer is no. I wrote to Elaine Equi and sent a link to an article where I name her as a contemporary American poetry master. I sent this around the Fourth of July. She was sincerely flattered. It made her holiday.

Artists like Frida Kahlo weren’t afraid to approach greater artists. I think the story goes she approached a famous painter and demanded that he help her become famous. He was impressed by her spirit and consented. We know what happens from there.

There is a lot of negativity out there and no way to avoid it. Toughen your skin. Rejection from editors is a sign of nobility, not incompetence. Expect plenty of them. Never let this dissuade you from who you are. Confidence is a great trait, but arrogance is only for those who have climbed as high as Icarus without falling. Think Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin. Arrogance is unbecoming, but forgivable in highly accomplished people. Perhaps you will have the liberty one day, but don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Flow.


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Scott Thomas Outlar hosts the site 17Numa.wordpress.com where links to his published poetry, fiction, essays, interviews, reviews, and books can be found. He is a Best of the Net and three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Scott's poetry books include: Songs of a Dissident (Transcendent Zero Press, 2015), Chaos Songs (Weasel Press, 2016), Happy Hour Hallelujah (CTU Publishing, 2016), and Poison in Paradise (Alien Buddha Press, 2017). Scott serves as an editor for The Peregrine Muse, Happy Hour Hallelujah, and Novelmasters.

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