Discobolus; Bums on the Beach
By: Nicholas Karavatos
The cult of the individual in this churn of century is ostracist, is
isolationist, is yet to be pathologized social sciences of anxiety, is
a narrowing eschew of musical experience to curate
the college radio of ourselves that stream the underlit
tyrannies embroidered in spatial cranial we’ll
call safe at Homeplate. Specious vigilantes slay
or slave bougie garden gnomes in my brain stem.
To spectate my lack of separations, my skull sutra’s
bones of convection among Indian and Atlantic and Pacific
lines of inner outer selves and others – Antarctic and Arctic
Anarchic and Archaic – our oceans our alien-within so
I mind the gap and switch on the deep-sea light in my head.
That moment you realize you’ve been thinking but not doing.
You’ve forgotten to get it down if out. Then again that moment
your head is empty
were a dark web of publicity. Your issue
with identity is you’re depersonalized by
conformities with hyperindividualists and strike back as a homicidal
nonentity. This suicidal ideation is the Reverse Pinocchio. Corralled
in the misinformation age “do your research” rallies these lackers
of resonance who always find the preconceived object of their reach.
Bums on the Beach
Easy to kiss you easily kiss me easy for me
to kiss you kiss me easily after diffidence.
A return from uneasy leaps in neap
tides, shallow trough of indecisions
I make of myself. This mindfulness
kisses me with wooden sickle smile
a pocketful of inception for starting fires. My structural
kindling to our kiss. Sold-out souls returned to senders.
What could have been, I cough, what could have been had I not.
I knotted the rope around my neck, around my wreck, I sounded
the depth of what could have been had I jumper
cables and the encryption key to my courage
had I parachuted into the eye of my brain fever; had I not
slipped, slid on my sweat, broke my head and lost my crown.
Minimum wage workers offer up bones to fill the gap
in the sand shortage. Minimum wage workers’ bones
ground to fill the gap. Granulated bones balance the sand
shortage hobbling construction, reinhabit abandoned dwellings
in a workers’ market of sweet, pink grapefruits. The bait
the switch, the not a worker’s paradise built of brick and
mortar or cinderblock and human ash mortar dust of bone meal
just enough blood orange to mix a rue, a paste of powder blue
bones to haunt all six sides of my shelter. Ashen human
mortar constructs a haunt of a human dwelling, a taunt to
a lone changer that waits, inflates in patience as
penance until even virtues are not an owned reward.
Rewards of a clearer conscience lack memories worth
dining-out on; the dangers inside home, a homecooked
meal inhabits haunted frames; I have no idea what’s going on with those
guys I am. Photovoltaics are photosynthesis in green economies of sugar.
No one needs be but it’s better to be a surfer to be a beach bum on the
clock who’s slathered in sunscreen and shifts in shape as a continental.
Nicholas Karavatos is a lecturer in creative writing at the Arab American University of Palestine - Jenin, West Bank.
Interview with the Poet:
Cathexis Northwest Press:
How long have you been writing poetry?
I have no idea. However …
Can you remember the first poem you read that made you fall in love with poetry? Who are your favorite poets? Any specific poems?
I heard poems before I knew that they were poems. Poems were read to me and songs were sung to me. When I was born, we lived in a basement apartment off Harvard Square. My parents met at Northeastern University in the engineering program, which neither were particularly interested in, I think. It was the Cold War and they had math skills. My father is the youngest of his first-generation family from Crete. He went into computers, the sales side, but our family did not become the ground floors of any later tech boom. A career in corporate computer sales, though, kept him out of Vietnam, I think. Our parents divorced after we relocated to California; he went back east; and we struggled together in the ways female-headed households struggle, especially then, but always and still do, too. These were formative years.
The music collection in our home was built on the folk revival of the Civil Rights Era and folk-rock with a little pop. As a child among his parents’ records, I pondered why Simon & Garfunkel would record two versions of “Sounds of Silence.” And their reason didn’t matter; only my child-mind pushing my imagination further mattered; I guess I was doing aesthetics, in sense, teaching my brain to do it. And the audio-scenario “5 O’clock News/Silent Night” was a horror movie in my child-mind: one channel a roundup of headline news in 1965 and the other channel a haunting Christmas carol – put the two together between my ears and figuring how two seemingly separate things put together produce this third. It could be that these contemplations that I began in childhood, as in these examples and others, are still working at themselves in me in other ways.
Our turntable had 5 speeds and I would often listen to music at far too few revolutions-per-minute, or too many revolutions-per-minute. I would get in trouble for moving the record by hand with the needle dropped. Later, I first really listened to Indian classical music (at any rpm but also really slow) by Ravi Shankar on Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. In California, by way of Illinois (lots of cousins still in Chicago, too), I’d get my friends to put on headphones for “Revolution 9” when bored with playing ball or stuck inside with nothing on TV. I was such a weirdo but if you weren’t too socially ashamed to hang out with me, maybe some things of it were fun. Comedy records were also in our home – standup as a form of spoken word; the timing and structures. Somewhere in here I heard Gil Scott Heron and one never unheard Gil Scott Heron.
My mom would read A.A. Milne to me as a child and these verses were also in my head, and I would recite them. Probably beginning with us Gen-Xers, haven’t many Anglophones since trained our childhood tongues on the rhymes and rhythms of Dr. Suess books? Am I overgeneralizing again? Probably.
Standardized testing told me that I read at a much higher level than my peer group, but that was all I ever had at being a good test-taker. My origins as a poet are not so narrowcast – I am naming and claiming but my origins as a poet were also extraliterary, were also in music, visual & performing arts, in film & television – so here we also find the tendrils of my interdisciplinary attitudes and acts.
Later, I’d watch peculiar PBS no one in the house was noticing, get up and watch late-night-movies on broadcast TV after everyone was asleep, and then spent many hours in Miramar Theatre watching films, permissively – the dialogue and visual narrative with music. Hometown independent theater, my mom would drop me off and wave from the car window to the ticket seller as permission who’d let me in for the R-rated triple features; before the single showing ticket became the industry norm of cinema chains, we’d see the main feature, the supporting feature, and then the main feature would play again. But I would also go to films with adults, even if they said I would be bored, though, yes, I was told “no” from time to time. Engaging with media outside the target audience of my peer group, I was straining to understand what was not quite understandable to me and so I was developing this attention of analytical mind engaging with plots & characters through visual and performing arts.
I was not alone in this – I would talk with adults about the films and television I watched, just like talking about current events that I was not unaware of. Adults seemed willing to talk to me as a child and as I was growing up, and this was fortunate for me, with all my sociocultural sociopolitical questions I had from the arts, and newspapers and TV. From these conversations and readings, I developed a sense of the constructs of authorship and of audience – who molds the message, why, and how the message is molded – and then from these began thinking about structures of power in societies, secular and sacred.
(Yes, the precise vocabulary of hindsight – one does not usually think of one’s early youth so conceptually, so thematically while one lives it.)
But we lived it too.
Our car pulls over and I ask my mom why we’re stopping. She says she wants to watch those police over there, talking to those young people. Cop-watch wasn’t a thing for white folks back then, I think, I hope I’m mistaken, but there we were doing it – witnessing. Our mom spoke quite honestly with us about the Black Panthers and the Civil Rights Movement and anything, everything else in society, so we knew The Panthers drove around their Oakland neighborhoods to watch the cops. Derived from my own life and my engagement with the arts, the concept of the witness has been in my poetics and could be read in my publications.
I would read the Sunday Los Angeles Times all week long. Our house would have three sets of encyclopedias and other nonfiction publications – like “poetry” in the Dewey Decimal System. I would read these for hours, and mainstream traditional art and photography books. Discussions with our mom would inevitably lead to her saying, “Let’s look it up in the encyclopedia,” though also justifiably. And one topic would always lead to another and hours would go by. My sister Karen Karavatos, a consumer protection attorney, two of our maternal cousins, authors Amy Crider and Joan Baranow, were recently joking with me about our childhood dinners that often climaxed not in dessert but in heated points needing to be settled and so encyclopedia volumes would end up open among plates on the dinner table as matters were finally settled.
At home and in my schooling I was mainly a visual artist, though was also a self-taught musician. At the urging of school friends who also played bass in music programs, I auditioned for the high school Jazz Band – the one that played for theater performances, etc. Handed a piece of music, I was asked to play it. I was told by the jazz teacher that I played fine but that I needed to learn how to sightread. Yikes! Graduating from high school, I’d won a limited scholarship to the then-Laguna Beach School of Art, the now-Southern California School of Design in Laguna Canyon. The previous summer, I’d attended a month-long series of poetry workshops at Bennington College. I was seventeen and knew nothing, maybe less than I know now, was completely out of my league and it was so great – my humbling inadequacy opened me and I was smiled upon by Fortune with significant influences among the other participants, such as Aimee Grunberger and the night she read to me “Ode to the Harbormaster” by Frank O’Hara – a moment of change.
The night John Ashbery gave a reading in the living room of our dorm-house, he sat in an overstuffed chair with a standing lamp over him, pull-chain, and a tasseled shade – we sat on the floor around him and had a great party afterward. The next day, I was commenting on the reading to Evelyn and she made a reference to Language poetry. I had never heard of that before that summer. “What is that?” I asked.
I first heard “Howl” read aloud then, too, one summer evening in Vermont when I was 17 – a moment of change – the sound was familiar to me in some way and yet I had never heard anything like it before. I got the book and the old album Howl and Other Poems. “Howl” would be a poem that I’d commit extensive passages to memory. I loved the way it kept gently slapping me across the face and shaking me to wake up to space and time.
At the Naropa Institute, I would attend summer poetry workshops, for undergraduate then graduate credit. I studied with Ginsberg, Corso, di Prima, Hollo, Orlovsky, Waldman during those sessions. I would also spend a summer session at UCSC studying with George Hitchcock, the editor of Kayak, and learning writing procedures and constraints.
Later in life, after living a life or two, when I went back to grad school at New College of California, I studied with Clark, Cornford, Frym, Hejinian, and Meltzer. I earned my terminal degree in poetics and writing in 1999 – finally.
Codrescu’s still-great anthology Up Late had been for me a follow-up to my used and tattered copy of Allen’s New American Poetry. Up in Humboldt, the used bookstore Tin Can Mail Man had a poetry section wherein books would appear for me from Beat, New York School (first and second), Language, and other poetries. How did they get there, and so serially, when I was ready to read? I obtained remaindered issues of Sulfur and Conjunctions at Northtown Books.
I searched out and wrote the poetry that I sensed I was being encouraged not to write, though as an undergrad, Cortez-Day set me straight: “You like your writing too much.” Damn. I had no work-around to that and had to own it and ace that and became a better ruthless editor of my work; Minty did that, too, then. But I was an art history minor at HSU and I was applying the artists’ writings in Theories of Modern Art, edited by Chipp, to my writing processes as a poet. Against professional academic advice to this young poet, I also studied linguistics and not exclusively literature – I didn’t realize until years later what my professors were aware of, that I’d just placed myself into the crosshairs a venomous debate in contemporary poetry. I got a call at home once from the psycholinguistics professor, just to talk, stemming from my conversations with my “language and culture” anthropology professor, Wenger, about language and thought, language and consciousness.
The tensions of the language that I live in, my medium that I work in, simultaneously being my beginning and my end, my opening and my closing.
As an undergrad, I hung out with the musicians on campus at Humboldt State, socially and professionally; I performed as a musician – having played in bands together over the years, I still collaborate with musician/songwriter Jeff Kelley on intermedia spoken word performances – and I was a sound technician at the university’s CenterArts Productions. Entering college I wondered if I’d be a music major or art major. While majoring in English and thinking of myself as a poet, I positioned myself at intersections of disciplines and social groups. On the job, I used the soundboard to do spoken word and insert tapes and radio and other odd occurrences interacting with musicians I was mixing – good times – sometimes the whole Quad stopped to listen.
Can you share for us a little bit about your writing process? Any specific rituals that get you in the zone?
I’d enjoy speaking particularly on writing the poems in the manuscript Colony Collapse, which includes these poems in this issue of CNP, and the broader context of the writing I was doing in that period. CNP is the journal that is first bringing out some of these poems, an introduction for which I am grateful. Recently, other journals have been publishing poems from my much more completed recent manuscript, I Believe in Blasphemy: excerpts from the extended title poem and even complete, extended conceptual works from the book.
Both books are of a particular period in my work, and both are mentioned for the interest of the distinctions. From the Persian Gulf, after seventeen years, I returned to California in fall 2017; then, in spring 2018 I was at Bahir Dar University as a U.S. Ambassador’s Distinguished Scholar to Ethiopia. When I returned I started writing pages by hand every day from any syllable sounds that started in my mind and I decided that I did not care if anything I wrote was “poetry” in any way, which sounds utterly juvenile but I had a need to feel the begin-again and did it in my making. I was also an unemployed poet at midlife, and I was so-typically wondering what the point of it all had been and I was sick with whatever cliché that or I sounded like, and so I decided to write myself through out of it. Well, I needed to; I had a sense of and now you must.
I had savings and know I am privileged to have had the work to amount some savings; I also took opportunities that might’ve been considered hardships – if my grandmother as a young teen can take ship to America from a mountain village on Crete in the early 20th century, out from under the Ottoman Empire with two little brothers in tow, then I can go wherever I need to find work, too – and I did so, which is also a privilege of opportunity with education for which I’m grateful, especially when it’s round-trip, and so I paid back my student loans and left debt. After that, it was savings and that saved me.
I rented a little attachment in Arcata, filled it with my library from storage, and I began writing.
With two decades in academia, my brain was trained on writing conference papers – microaggressors compelled me to – and my requests for sabbaticals just to write poetry were met by university-level committees with what felt to me like snide claims that, as a poet, I can do whatever wherever whenever, unlike my colleagues who do scholarship and research & development – actual work. Or, if I resisted the imposition of a quasi-Romantic cliché as a job description, I was asked to propose what I would be writing, why I would be writing it, how I would be writing it, how much of it I’ll be writing, and the criteria to assess meeting these goals and objectives, the writing of my poems.
Is it just me? Well, I was the first poet these universities had ever hired and no one knew how to evaluate what I was doing, as an academic, if I were producing art that is also writing, like articles are, but not? Annual fluctuations in the criteria continuum. Those years, though, were physically and economically stable, and I was relatively prolific over time. Do not allow me to discount the numerous opportunities and interactions that were opened to me as an expat.
And so… in 2018 I began the manuscripts I Believe in Blasphemy, which is completed, and Colony Collapse, which I began at my sister’s in San Clemente and continue to develop. I’ve also revised again the also unpublished manuscript Free Water which was a Semi-Finalist for the 2016 Washington Prize and a Finalist for the 2019 Elixir Press Antivenom Poetry Award – and a few its poems have moved over to the I Believe in Blasphemy manuscript.
I haven’t forgotten that I am speaking now on writing the poems in the manuscript Colony Collapse, and the broader context of the writing I was doing in that period.
I deleted all my social media accounts so I would only talk with myself in writing projects. I had ideations conflicted concepts and heard and read others and I made poems repurposing it all. And then there was the blind ink in the book that I scribbled each day with every instigating syllable I heard in my head – maybe Romantic b.s. but I did need to unrepress – eventually I began typing out each day’s writing (beginning from months before) as the first draft of a poem that I would discover within and mold from that typescript. And I just didn’t care if anyone thought I was whatever people say people are or are not; what a poem was or was not. I stopped caring and wrote in isolation – weird times hiding in Humboldt County, again – I didn’t always care for myself and those days blazed by in a daze of nights in blight or fright or light – but I was working – working it out and making something of it all, I hoped. I am still developing material from this period; I’m not interested in reliving the period, though, for at least several years or more, many more, in fact. I was also not a very cared-for person during this phase, for good reasons apparent to those outside of me. But that was then and this is now.
Considering the writing, though, the poetics of Colony Collapse is quite middle of the road, from where I stand. Another reader may stand elsewhere and hear it otherwise.
Writing in two places that I had formerly lived for so long made a lot of memory bounces. My lives there felt so imprinted that it pushed up the questions, once I began to feel myself again safe at home and not feeling surveilled, regarding my past two decades of international work and travel: Where have I been and what just happened to me? A twenty-year lost weekend? Not a question meant to be answered with passport visa stamps, work contracts, and photos albums, yeah? And, can I yet make anything actual of it all? Figuratively feeling deathbed in my seam-strain to begin again in bursts out from all of my beginnings. But now I had the discipline to forge.
For me, I would turn again outward and enjoy a meditative residency in Finland in January 2020 at Villa Sarkia and then on to Palestine in February as a visiting professor. And then, and then, because of The Pandemic, I repatriated again late in the spring, and have been teaching online ever since for the Arab American University of Palestine, Jenin in The West Bank. I kept my place here during the months I was gone and was so glad I did. Since returning, I have been revising the poems of Colony Collapse, including those published here, which have been revised since submission to CNP.
This concentration beginning in 2018 at my sister’s house in San Clemente, and then when I set-up again in Arcata, that concentration of energy became a nonmedical depressive mania at times with the compulsive dictate to myself that I must create a new thing each day that did not exist the day before; so, while I was constructing conceptual works on my laptop, I was molding raw writing from my journal into first drafts on my laptop, and also my daily free writing by hand for gestural intensity, like freehand drawing.
Artists do this every day of their lives – or say they do. For me, it’s the privileged opportunity (look, the older I get, the more each thing in life feels to be a gift and/or a lesson or both) to be in a conducive environment. And that I have and still have, temporarily, but we were discussing my mind during the writing of the poems published here…
The compulsive dictate to myself that I must create a new thing each day that did not exist the day before, made to some sense of a stage of completion, I sustained this for several months. I eased off and began a parttime job in fall 2019 at College of the Redwoods teaching in noncredit programs for refugees, immigrants, and also inmates at the county jail – really enjoyed all that work; then to Finland; then to Palestine. But back to moving back to Arcata in November 2018…
I would often wake long before dawn and would write with a pen that emitted a red light so I could write without the distracting glare in my brain of white light in my eyes; and no laptop until well after sunrise because its light changed the mind I was in or the mind I had. When I was younger and my eyes were stronger, candlelight sufficed for so much in the dark. The third section of my 2009 book No Asylum, “The blank page yawns at the thought of another day,” is developed from notes years before written this way each morning before getting up for work at Holly-Yashi Design as an artisan.
San Francisco Renaissance poet & musician David Meltzer generously blurbed No Asylum this way: “Nicholas Karavatos is a poet of great range and clarity. This book is an amazing collectanea of smart sharp political poetry in tandem with astute and tender love lyrics. All of it voiced with an impressive singularity.”
My current unpublished manuscripts I’ve been discussing, I think, also exhibit such “range” among them. However, I feel that Colony Collapse is more stylistically, if we can use that term, unified and is so less broad in its range of poetics or range of poetries, formally.
How do you decide the form for your poems? Do you start writing with a form in mind, or do you let the poem tell you what it will look like as you go?
I’ve also written poems in non-poetic forms of written communication, but assuming we mean poetic forms like traditional types of poems, external structures, I think I have only set out to write pantoums – only? how lame is that? I have also written a lot of haiku in the past – when I first moved to Arcata, I’d go out in the morning to the bird sanctuary or the community forest and write haiku. I felt I was training my mind with the attention of that writing skill. But I have always leaned toward form extending from content. And I applied to my own writing, the modernist artist statements from Chipp’s Theories of Modern Art during those undergrad years.
I did a lot of lyric writing in organically repetitive forms as a tweenager and young teenager – I was writing songs before I started teaching myself instruments and music reading/writing. I did take bass guitar lessons for a month from pro-surfer Corky Carrol at the House of Music when I was in eighth grade. So during all these years of songwriting, as I thought of it then, I was experimenting with structures, with rhythms and rhymes, alliteration and assonance. My early adolescent imagery was influenced by the lyrics on the seminal prog-metal album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. What followed after, I’ve discussed above – and am below…
I have felt that the space of the page is my canvas, that the space of the page is my screen, that letters or words or marks in this space create tensions among letters words marks in the space, which we hope we also enjoy the read of – and then the words do it, too, and how they’re read within their spatial tensions.
“Space Is the Place” – Sun Ra.
In the recent stages of revision of Colony Collapse, I have been (and it’s an externally formal departure for me) molding my lines into unrhymed couplets as ways of cohering the words phrases sentences from a confusion to a fusion of con-foundations.
Any advice for poets who have yet to find their voice?
Read Baraka’s essay “How Do You Sound?”
Here’s two classic rock analogies from pop culture history that show how bad poets borrow and good poets steal. I remember a Santana documentary I saw years ago. He talked about playing the guitar until you play through all your influences and then maybe at 2 in the morning you’ll play some notes that are authenticity you and you only – this is really my only memory of it, other than: My girlfriend turned to our housemate, percussionist Howie Kaufman, and reminded him to please not practice at 2 a.m. at home. So, that’s Santana finding voice on guitar. I recently heard Ringo Starr talk about writing songs and bringing them to the band – his band was The Beatles and Lennon/McCartney were its main songwriters – hey, no pressure, man. Ringo said he’d play his song, and John and Paul would be rolling on the floor laughing because he had yet again rewritten another classic R’n’B song. He couldn’t yet hear when his voice was or was not another’s voice. Ringo had not yet “found his voice” as a songwriter, but he would, somewhere in an octopus’ garden, no doubt.
You may feel your poems sound like you, and so you have found your voice. But if your poems fit into a sonic structure that comforts readers and listeners with tonal familiarities toward expectation fulfillments, regardless of content words, then you have not yet found your voice but you are writing yourself into a social-consensus soundscape. Essentially, a voice that reinforces State power. Reach your poem’s soundscape toward social-conscious and away from social-consensus.
If you played a blues riff in the Velvet Underground, your bandmates fined you – but that’s apocryphal. Corso said in class for a poet to figure out what everyone is doing and then do the opposite. That, I remember, to find a voice in your opposition as well as to find a voice in your position – not just how are you? and who are you? but also when are you? and where are you?
What is your editing process like?
This is play.
This is meditation.
I listen to music as I do. Think about how films are edited.
What can you do, poet, to make the material make itself into what it came into being to be?
When do you know that a poem is finished?
When it stops bothering me. That it is not it yet. Like this interview – it’s been bothering me to finish, to write and rewrite, and I just have, and feel OK with it. Pardon my pomposities, throughout, please, and thank you again, CNP.