Eric Paul has been writing since his days as singer for the celebrated noise-rock band Arab on Radar. The Providence-based poet recently released his latest book A Popular Place to Explode to critical acclaim on Heartworm Press, run by Wesley Eisold of Cold Cave and the hardcore band American Nightmare. The New York release party for this is on Saturday at Over the Eight in Brooklyn. I asked Paul questions over email about absurdity and being mentored by writers you love.
I read Pussy Pow Wow published under your nom de plume Mr. Pottymouth after I saw you in the Chinese Stars play a festival at SUNY Purchase. It was actually the first book of independent poetry I ever read and it was super intense. What was behind the decision to start publishing work under Eric Paul after that book?
To best answer this question, let me give you a little background about Pussy Pow Wow. In 1999, I was approached by a now-defunct small press out of Providence. They expressed a strong appreciation for my lyrics and asked if I ever wrote in any other discipline and if I would consider publishing that writing. I had never written anything but lyrics. But the idea of publishing a book was so tempting that I accepted the challenge and began writing short stories and poems without really knowing what I was doing. At the same time this offer came in, I was also in the midst of some of the more difficult years of battling my mental illness. So, some of the writing that ended up in the book were excerpts from journals that my therapist suggested I keep to help cope with the events responsible for my illness. I felt disgusting inside and the work reflected that. Looking back on it now, I think the book is careless and promotes a rather dangerous worldview. However, that was never my intent. For me, the book was simply a way to cope with all the gross things I had experienced growing up, in the same way my lyrics with Arab On Radar did. Unfortunately, I confronted all of this publicly where most people confront their personal pain in private. Quite honestly, I sometimes regret writing that book. I don’t believe my personal pain was a good enough excuse to employ such alienating language. But, it’s done and I can’t un-release it. But to specifically address your question, the answer is simple. I began using my real name because I was ready to take responsibility for my work. I was getting to be a slightly better writer and had fallen madly in love with poetry and wanted to be a part of its world. Using a fake name to write Pussy Pow Wow was a way of not owning up to what I was doing – which was dealing with my problems in an irresponsible way. I have always had a complicated relationship with this book but not with any of my work that came after it.
What was the catalyst to start publishing your writing and what made you decide to pursue an MFA at Fairleigh Dickinson University? It doesn’t seem like a quick drive from Providence to Teaneck, New Jersey.
The more I fell in love with poetry the more I wanted to know about it and to become a better writer. It was at this time I began reading more literary journals and poetry and began to better understand my aesthetic. In my research I came across a poem on the Greensboro Review called “I Have a Theory about Reflection,” by a poet named Renee Ashley. After reading it, I went out and bought all of Renee’s work. In her bio on the Greensboro Review site, I noticed that she taught in the MFA program at FDU, so I decided to apply to the program. I felt such an unspeakable connection to this poem and to Renee’s work in general that I really wanted to study with her. There is a lot more to this story, but Renee and I ended up having a very strong personal connection and very similar aesthetic. Even after graduating the program I still share all of my work with her for editing and guidance and consider her to be one of my closest friends. Check out her latest book on Subito Press called Because I Am The Shore, I Want To Be The Sea.
I read in an interview where you were quoted as saying that you write lyrics for self-indulgent and personal reasons. Do you feel the same way about your poetry?
I’m not sure what interview this was from but it sounds like I’m trying to avoid some responsibility for the offensive nature of my early lyrics. I don’t really feel that way about poetry. I write it because I get so much enjoyment out of reading it. The themes of my poetry are still very similar to the lyrics but I feel like I approach it in a more responsible manner.
Does the lack of a safety net of having music backing you and the precision of word choice ever compromise what you’re trying to express?
This is tough! Lyricists can get away with so much more than a poet can. So, I don’t know if compromise is the right word but I agonize much less over lyrics than poetry. I have never really been all that compromising except for a brief period in The Chinese Stars where I kept desperately trying to sway the band away from anything that resembled Arab On Radar to a fault. With that being said, I couldn’t be happier than to be playing with the people I am playing with now (Steve and Craig of Arab On Radar and Paul of Chinese Stars). They are the real deal and it forces me to keep up.
You wrote in the essay for Impose Magazine “Satan Has a New Name Tonight- It’s Arab on Radar!” that when performing you feel “psychically numb.” Do you ever feel the same when writing, like in those instances where you just keep going with something?
Unfortunately, no! I feel incredibly vulnerable when I write. I am a raw nerve. I can have multiple meltdowns over just one poem. One line can bother me for days. I never feel that way with music. It could be because I began playing music in the 5th grade and only began seriously writing when I was about 30 years old. I still have so much to learn and I am very excited about learning it. I cannot wait until it feels more like a craft, the way music does, rather than an onslaught of insecurities and strange emotions.
In A Popular Place to Explode and your previous book from Heartworm Press I Offered Myself as the Sea, you touch upon the absurdity of everyday life, which you explained at length in regards to your hometown of Providence using a news broadcast of a sea monster attack. At what point growing up did you become aware of this, that what had seemed normal to you might be different from an outsiders’ perspective?
I became accustomed to absurdity in early childhood! I grew up in Rhode Island. which I stated in that essay, has its own unique brand of weirdness. But on a more personal level, which unfortunately, too many people have experienced, I grew up with drug addiction, domestic violence, and sexual abuse. I didn’t know what “normal” was until my mother was able to get us out of the situation that my biological father created.
What has the editorial experience in working with Wesley Eisold at Heartworm been like? Did it change at all with your second book from them?
Wes has been amazing! He is a true fucking friend! I cannot thank him enough for all that he has given me. Around 2006, I was writing poems that I didn’t really share with anyone. I had no confidence. I was also self-medicating to cope with my illness and was very unhappy with the music I was creating. Wes became aware of this, reached out, and suggested we work together on a book. He used to fly me down to Philly (where Heartworm was located at the time) to help with my sobriety and to edit and discuss my poems. At the time, he really helped to restore my confidence and move forward. My writing was still very raw then, and I was struggling to make the leap from lyricist to poet. Wes and I spent long days editing and talking about where I wanted the work to go. He is patient and kind and turned me on to some poets that really influenced and changed my outlook. For my most recent book, I actually handed Wes a finished product. Renee ended up editing most of the book along with my friend Kaveh Akbar (founder of Divedapper and poetry editor of Booth). So, when I thought it was complete, I sent it to Wes and he dug it. He didn’t want to change anything.
Last Question: What is the appeal of the Heaven’s Gate cult aesthetic?
Ha! I am just fascinated by extreme ideologies. Heaven’s Gate has always stuck out. When they committed suicide I was on tour and we were taking a piss break at that giant truck stop in Iowa on Route 80. I remember the images of their bodies flashing across all of the televisions in the rest area. I was captivated. I loved the matching outfits. I loved the sneakers. Obviously, I didn’t love the suicide. But, there was something so compelling about their presentation. On that tour or maybe the one after, we ended up checking out the house in San Diego where they lived. So, I guess I feel an unhealthy or delusional personal connection to this particular cult.