13 Questions with RD Armstrong

by HST UK on November 28, 2011

Every once in a while Horror Sleaze Trash meets up with a true gent, and that really does make us giddy. Especially when that gent has been a mainstay of the small press community for the last few decades, and worked with some of the finest writers bubbling beneath the surface in his role as editor of Lummox Press; RD Armstrong kindly answered our 13 Questions….

HST: Are people too precious when they talk about poetry – both those who write for love, and those misjudged fools who write for creative status, both the underground and the upper crust Academia? Is poetry more than just a simple form of emotional expression?

It’s funny that you should ask this because just recently I have had some eye-opening experiences with this very topic. It seems that some fairly intelligent people, poets, have become almost delusional regarding their “craft” as if, poetry is the fucking end-all and as important as diplomacy or war-mongering. Ironically, most of these people are also incredibly small-minded and petty at the same time. I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of the fools who write for creative status, since, I believe these fools are writing poetry (which is different than fiction) with more of a legacy in mind…at least the fools I know, and they’re all over 50. I think when one is younger, say in their 20s – 40s, one writes to get girls (or more precisely to get into girls panties). Of course this is from a man’s point of view…women have other motives, I’m sure. After 40, one begins to think of legacy or “how will I be remembered?” and this can mess up your reason to write. You’ll notice I say “can”; it doesn’t always, but lately I’ve seen a lot of poets who use their work as a kind of tool to assist them in self-validation. And it isn’t pretty.

As to the second question…of course it can be more than a simple form of emotional expression. A well written poem can make you think about something in a whole new way; it can take apart a concept or ideal, examine it, pass judgment (or not) and leave you to sort it out. Granted, there is often an emotional or implied emotional element, something that connects you, the reader, to the story. Some call it empathy, but I find that word vastly misunderstood and overused. It’s more like sympathy.

It’s tricky trying to get the reader’s attention without using catch-phrases or being overly dramatic (this probably works on younger audiences since they are most susceptible to getting sucked into rhetoric, be it emotional or political). That’s why I favor straight-up narrative. There’s less confusion. I think a poet’s job is to ‘observe and report’. The readers will fill in the blanks and/or keep the poet honest. There is no need to embellish.

HST: Mr Armstrong, you’ve worked several jobs – according to a bio I read, it stated you’ve worked in coffee houses, on building sites and in schools. Did it bug you that you were never able to pinpoint one particular career path? I’ve had a similarly chequered employment history, and I was always somewhat envious of my acquaintances who knew what they wanted to be – Doctor, Lawyer, Pilot, Teacher etc.; or are you pleased to have sampled a variety of sweets from the Quality Street tin?

Well, I don’t really know what this has to do with anything…you might as well ask me if I’m happy to be a single man after so many failures with women. It makes me a lot more knowledgeable about women and has given me lots to write about. I’m what you could call a self-educated man (I often refer to myself as a literary stumblebum, too) – I never went to college, but that didn’t stop me from learning. Sure, I worked as a teacher for 9 years, worked as a handyman/jack of all trades for nearly 30 years, worked in a coffeehouse for about 2 years and even worked as a para-professional counsellor for 6 years, but I don’t see that as a limitation. In fact, I think the variety of jobs I had made me what I am today (not just unemployed). All that experience (don’t forget that I also have published poetry for over 17 years…not to mention written it for a lot longer than that) has made my poetry even stronger because it has influenced the way I approach what I write. So I guess the answer to question 2 is yes.

HST: What was your earliest and most significant poetry experience?

I don’t remember. It might have been getting a poem published in a high school anthology, but I can barely remember what it was called or what the poem was. It may have been about the death of Jan Palach, a Czech who died when the Russians invaded his country. I think he was a student who set himself on fire in protest to the Soviet invasion. The poem I wrote was embarrassingly bad, even though the intention was good. And the reason this was so significant to me was that even though I didn’t know it at the time, I think this planted a seed in me to want to write the poem. Granted, it took me another thirty years for that seed to bloom…

Now when I write a political poem or a social commentary poem I try to keep it short. Political poems are also tricky, as I don’t want to become preachy…Observe and report…it’s not an opinion piece. I want the reader to think about what I have seen, if they swing over to my side, that’s great, but it’s not my primary concern.

HST: I’d like to talk about a poem of yours we featured at HST called ‘A Working Man’s Library’. It heartbreakingly reveals the personal value of a book, and the strange majesty of compiling a personal library – are books becoming devalued?

Well thanks. At least somebody gets what I’m talking about! You know, it seems like that might be the case in this ever more technological world some of us occupy, what with Kindles and iPads all the rage these days. But I remember not too long ago when the CD was introduced and everyone was dumping vinyl left and right and record players were being sold for scrap and now…records are making a comeback, isn’t that true? So, even if books become a less important vehicle for spreading the ‘word’, I don’t think they’ll become obsolete.

HST: Lummox Press has been publishing since the mid-nineties, in that time we’ve seen the rise of the internet and the evolution of publishing from paper to e-books. How did you promote Lummox before the internet, and how are you as a publisher moving with the times to incorporate the new ways of reading books?

Well, I actually have been relying on the internet/computer technology since I began. I used to have a band (well I had several) and the computer was so great at making flyers that when I switched over to poetry (readings mostly), it was only natural for me to use the computer. At first, I used mass faxing to put out the word. Then that was replaced by email and I’ve never looked back. I haven’t sent a fax in years. I use the Internet to advertise my titles along with emails, but here’s the sad truth about all this technology… nothing seems to work better than good old fashioned face to face contact. For instance, I recently went on a tri-state reading tour for two weeks and I sold more books in that time than I had in the last 2 years on my website (with the exception of one title). I had copies of 4 of my books and 4 other titles and I just about sold out everything! Now you might think that those people who bought copies of books from me might be interested in seeing the rest of my growing catalogue and order more titles from Lummox, but no, it doesn’t work like that.

Nothing seems to work better than personal intervention…that is me, talking about how good a book is. Even the poets themselves don’t sell their books as well as I do (except for one or two). Most of the titles I have published lay on shelves gathering dust. This is because it’s hard to push a book written by somebody who lives far away. And most of my books are from poets who live at least 500 miles away. Besides my books, I’ve only published 3 other “local” poets. The rest are as far away as Sweden and as close as the SF/Bay area; 4 local poets out of 15 (more if you count the anthologies).

I’m not a big fan of e-books, but I’m not stupid either. I realize that e-book poetry is pretty much an untapped market these days, so, of course, I’m looking into it. I have a PDF version of almost every book I’ve published in this current series for sale on my website. I’ve already sold a number of copies, including a set to one Scottish lady who saw it as a way to get all my books without having to pay a fortune in shipping charges!

The latest book I’ve published, CATALINA by Laurie Soriano, is slated to be an e-book available from Book Baby (an offshoot of CD Baby) and it will be available in all the major platforms (where a PDF is primarily a computer platform). I’m anxious to see how this plays out…that is, if it’s worth the investment.

There’s got to be a way to reach the audience without having to see them face to face…I’m still searching for it.

HST: Your first collection was self-published through Lummox Press. There still seems a stigma surrounding self-publishing for writers. Whereas when a musician or filmmaker can put out their work on their own labels and companies independently without being judged, a writer who does the same is viewed as somewhat insincere, does this bother you?

I totally agree. I think the stigma is total bullshit! Walt Whitman was self-published and you don’t hear anybody squawking about that! I self-publish most of my own books because the other editors I have been involved with did a lousy job! I’m the best editor I never found! And when I publish someone else, I want to make sure that the book is up to their standards as well.
Now if I could only find a way to motivate the poets to sell the damned books!

HST: I’d like you to talk a bit about the process that you go through when reading a submitted project / manuscript, what are you looking for as an editor?

I do tend to like poetry that focuses on the day to day, which tends to be kinda sad, because the days are mostly sad with bits of joy and moments of wonder. Some say I’m a pessimist but I think I’m more of a realist and so I look for realism. One thing though, I really hate sensationalism and pretence. That and rhyming verse…I do like old school rhyming verse, but most modern verse is out of whack somehow.

I’m looking for strong, solid writing. I tend to prefer writing that seems sincere and has a ‘voice’ that I can relate to. Over the years I have read literally thousands of poems…OY! It makes me crazy when I think of all the bad to mediocre poetry & prose I have read. I’d say that 90% of what I read is either kind of ‘eh?’ or just plain awful! Of course I’ve gotten very diplomatic in my rejections of such junk; in fact one of the poets I published this year was one I initially rejected. I told her to “workshop” it (an idea I hate) and she did and son-of-a-bitch when she retried it, the damned manuscript was great!

HST: In the last couple of years we have lost two significant poets – Todd Moore and Scott Wannberg. Lummox Press published both of these men, if you wouldn’t mind, please could you share some memories of these fine poets, and tell those who might be unaware of Todd and Scott’s work, why they should track down their words, and educate themselves?

We’ve lost more than two, bucko (we just lost Kell Robertson for example), but I’ll concentrate on these two. Well, I met Scott in ’94 when I held a series of three tributes to Charles Bukowski after he died. Scott came down to read in San Pedro with SA Griffin and a bunch of their cronies. I loved Scott’s crazy ability to riff on just about anything, seemingly at the drop of a hat. His performances were completely unique and pure. He was in the moment whenever he read or was riffing. I really liked Scott’s poetry from about 2002, back. His later work evolved into what seemed like intellectual babble, to the point that I thought his last published book (Percival Press) was edited and co-written by somebody else. Scott said no; but it was different from his earlier work.

Later I came to realize that Scott had Asperger’s which is a form of Autism. He was a loveable big old galoot. Very child-like. I published two chapbooks by him, Equal Opportunity Sledgehammer and Nomads of Oblivion. Both were very popular. I was working on a book of his, Show And Tell, at the time of his death but decided to publish Scott Wannberg, The Lummox Press Years too, to celebrate his work for me over the years. It would have been a pretty comprehensive collection of his work from 1996 to 2006. Unfortunately, these two books are on hold because of a snafu with his literary estate. I don’t know when I’ll be able to bring them out.

As regards Todd Moore, I learned of him from Mark Weber (check out Zerx Records and publications) who suggested he’d make a great interview (this was back when I was publishing a small lit-arts mag called the Lummox Journal). Well, I’d never heard of Todd before so I asked him if he’d do an interview and he said sure and soon we were fast friends! He was working on an epic poem that used John Dillinger as a metaphorical hero. It was one longassed mother of a poem! Over the years Todd sent me sections of this “future book” for consideration for publication. I think I have at least 7. He also corresponded with me, encouraging me to keep doing what I was doing and was very supportive of the Lummox Journal which he said was one of the best monthly poetry mags out (even better than Poetry)! I published every essay he sent me along with every poem. I also published several chapbooks by him, including, The Corpse is Dreaming (from his Dillinger epic), Bombed In New Mexico (a split chap by him and Mark Weber) and Bone (a split chap that he and I did, which was a real honor for me). Two years ago, I published The Riddle of the Wooden Gun (a perfect bound volume, 140 pages long) and this year, on the anniversary of his passing I published Working the Wreckage of the American Poem (a collection of essays, poems, short stories and remembrances by some 42 poets who were touched by Todd’s raw style).

Unfortunately, due to some sort of misunderstanding, Todd and I fell out a few months before his death. I lost my privilege to publish anything ever again of his work, which included two books already planned. I never did find out what happened. It was very sad, indeed.

I still promote Todd to this day, even if it is in secret. His stark depictions of violence and the staccato way he wrote, barely one word per line, sprayed down the right-hand side of the page, almost as though written by a Thompson machine gun…one long, sweeping gesture of words, sometimes word fragments. It was a long and scary ride and I’m sorry it ended for me, so suddenly.

Your readers can find works by Scott and Todd just by googling them. I do have Todd’s Riddle and The Corpse is Dreaming available at Lummox Press. If there’s enough demand for it I could reprint Scott’s two chapbooks too. Todd’s future poems and the epic Dillinger are supposed to be available through St. Vitus Press. I don’t know when. I hope they come through with these books soon before Todd is forgotten.

HST: Tell me about ‘El Pagano and Other Twisted Tales’, a book of fiction you’ve written. I’m assuming you decided to write fiction because it gave you a greater scope for storytelling. Do you plan to write more fiction in the future?

Over the years, I’ve written quite a few stories, mostly for my own amusement. A friend of mine, way back in the mid-nineties, once told me that “anyone could write poetry, but it takes a real writer to write fiction.” So, I took up her challenge and wrote some fiction. Most of it is pretty dark and very sexual. But I thought El Pagano had some potential, so I published it, along with a collection of poetry called Fool’s Paradise (named after a camper I built in the early 80s). These two became the beginning of the Little Red Book series that I started in 1998. This series goes on today.

Anyway, a few years ago, while attending to my poetry collection, it occurred to me that I must honor my fiction-skills, so I decided to republish El Pagano as a collection, with the title story being included. I rather like this story, even though it is pretty dark and unredeeming. This ain’t your mamma’s story. But then, none of my stories are very pretty.

I haven’t really promoted my stories that much. I’m not sure what to do with them. I’m not ashamed; I’m just not at ease being hailed as an author. I haven’t gotten much praise for my efforts, partly because my ‘publisher’ isn’t very good at promoting my work (he’s too busy promoting everyone else in the ‘stable’). One of my friends and biggest supporters once said: “this out Bukowski’s Bukowski!” He was referring to one of the stories in this collection and it was by far the best thing anyone has ever said to me about my fiction.

Like my poetry, I write fiction when it comes to me. So far, nothing has really popped out as being worthy of jotting down…though I have certainly had quite a few experiences of late that would warrant a good story or two. Nothing has inspired me…yet.

HST: I was wondering what your take is on the Occupy protests, and the generation, those aged between 16-24 (who are likely to become a lost generation due to high levels of youth unemployment) that make up the majority of this global movement; you’re very much a self-made man, to quote a previous interview you’ve done “I’m a poster-child for the DIY lifestyle: having been my own boss for most of my adult life, living by my wits and learning my lessons the hard way, by trial and error”, so I wonder if you believe that collectively this generation should don the gloves, put in a gum shield and get ready for twelve hard rounds rather than partaking in futile protests?

As far as I can tell, the world’s been pretty much going downhill ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. Greed and Corruption have been slowly consuming everyone since Watergate, and with the end of the “cold war” and the beginning of the “invisible wars” (i.e. the wars on drugs, on poverty, and now on “terror”), not to mention all the distractions that are splashed across the news, I think it’s only a matter of time before the whole mess blows up in our collective faces…We live in an age of revolution and violent change. Not only is the ‘whole world watching’ but it is taking action. People are putting their lives on the line to have what we used to have and I think it’s only fitting that we try to get it back, as best we can. This country is long overdue for a major overhaul. Washington, like Nero, is fiddling (with itself) while America is smouldering. Question is, will America take itself seriously and try to become a democracy again or will it take the safe route and become a dictatorship, like so many other “democracies” have?

I was a marcher against the Vietnam War. I also marched in support of the United Farmworkers. I have continued to carry my own “flag”, working towards my ‘ideal’ on a ‘one-to-one basis’. I feel that everyone must do what they deem as right. And even though I don’t go on marches anymore, that doesn’t mean I don’t support those who do. And yes, even though these protests may seem futile, they act as a galvanizing event, steeling the truly serious to “don the gloves” and get ready for the long fight ahead. It’s a fight that keeps resurfacing, because it’s a fight that has existed far longer than this American republic has…and will undoubtedly exist well beyond it too.

HST: Earlier this year I finally got around to reading Bukowski’s ‘Hollywood’. I enjoyed it, perhaps most out of his novels because Buk’s alter-ego Chinaski appeared content and settled as a character, and as a writer Buk seemed to be having fun with his words. As a poet whose been heavily influenced by Bukowski, I was wondering how you saw him as a novelist?

In my opinion, and remember, I’m a literary stumblebum (which means my ‘education’ has a great many holes in it), Bukowski was at the top of his game when it came to the art of the short story. Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories are a close second. Granted I haven’t sampled a lot of other fiction, so I only know these. I have read other writers, but nobody captures the angst of the low-life like Buk, in my opinion. As to his few novels, they are pretty good too, though it seems to me that most are really untitled short stories strung together as chapters. Women was like that, as was Pulp (which seemed to be written by three different writers). Hollywood was more like creative non-fiction. But then, so was Ham on Rye. There’s nothing wrong with that. But he’ll always be King of the short story to me.

HST: What made you decide to put together ‘Last Call: The Legacy of Charles Bukowski’?

I wanted to show that, even after his death, his influence could be seen in a variety of writers. That volume kind of fell short, but the next “version”, Last Call: the Bukowski Legacy Continues, will be more accurate. That is to say, I have more examples of the influence on the succeeding generations. Eventually, I’ll get it right…or I’ll just be some old fool banging a drum that no one cares to listen too…maybe I’m already there!

HST: We like to digress somewhat on the final question. Last month I ate a Falafel for the first time. What new food have you recently sampled for the first time?

Cat food sautéed in butter almost tastes like meatloaf. It makes for an interesting sandwich…but seriously, have you ever tried Frito Pie?

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