Interview conducted August 2016
Charlie Brice’s full-length poetry collection, Flashcuts Out of Chaos, has just been published by WordTech Editions (2016). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Borfski Press, The Kentucky Review, The Atlanta Review, Chiron Review, The Dunes Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Sports Literate, Avalon Literary Journal, Icon, The Paterson Literary Review, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Spitball, Barbaric Yawp, VerseWrights, The Writing Disorder, and elsewhere.
Charlie Brice is such an incredibly kind and optimistic person to interact with, so much so that it is shocking to discover the range, depth, and sometimes darkness in his poetry. His poems spring from all points on the arc of life, from the confusion and fear of a young boy observing and attempting to cope with the alcoholism in his family to the escape and wonder of music and baseball to the true love and adoration of another person (and of the family dogs). Not to mention a handful of horrid nuns and an Allen Ginsberg sighting. There is so much to love about this collection; it is proof that poetry still lives and breathes in modern American literature.
Here is our conversation with the man himself, Charlie Brice:
The Borfski Press (TBP): First I want to ask you a little about the process of writing poetry, as well as the organization of your collection. Were the poems in Flashcuts written with the intention of being compiled into a book?
Charlie Brice: The poems in Flashcuts were written over a span of ten years. The oldest poem in the collection is “The Game,” which was first published in Barbaric Yarp. At the time I was writing a novel and getting some short stories published and still in practice as a psychoanalyst. Barbaric Yarp turned down a story of mine so, undaunted, I sent them “The Game,” which I’d just written and they accepted it immediately. As the years rolled by I started having much more success with poems than with my stories, so I decided to become a poet almost exclusively.
I am a great believer in revision. There are no “rough drafts” in the book. Probably the least amount of revision on a poem would have been three drafts, the most, over thirty. Poems like, “Fall, Up North,” “The Great Tactician,” “Walking Townsend Road,” “My Religion,” and “Half the Distance,” took several years to write, while “Catching Jesus,” “The Game,” “My First Poetry Teacher,” and “Burnt Offering,” seemed to write themselves. They all, however, went through many revisions.
TBP: So how long overall did it take you to compile these particular poems, and what was the publishing process like?
Brice: Compiling the poems into a book was a daunting task. There was the question of which poems to include and which to exclude. Naturally, I thought to include poems which had already been published in journals and online. Still, there were a number of poems that didn’t seem to fit and had to be left out. It’s one thing to have your poems published. I’ve been very lucky on that score. I’ve had over 70 poems published in over 45 journals. It’s another thing, however, to put together a book. Each section of Flashcuts has an arc. I tried to arrange the poems such that they spoke to each other, related to each other in some way. The book went through many versions and many titles. Over a period of four or five months, it was turned down by a heap of publishers. Finally, I gave the manuscript to my wife, the poet Judith Alexander Brice. She had already published a book, “Renditions in a Palette” (David Robert Books, 2013). Judy was ruthless: threw some poems out, included others, and reordered the whole bunch. About a month later, WordTech Communications accepted the manuscript! So Judy was a terrific help there. You know, it dawns on me that I have a new manuscript, Soulium, that I’ve been sending out and I haven’t shown it to Judy yet. What can I be thinking?!
TBP: Well, the daunting task seems to certainly have paid off. Flashcuts has a very clear arc, and despite (or perhaps because of) the variety of topics addressed, the collection comes together to form a coherent story. The story itself is unique, sometimes shocking, sometimes extremely relatable, and covers so much material and time that it takes the reader on a truly memorable emotional journey. That journey is organized into three sections: The Inverted World, Wild Pitch, and Milliseconds of Mystery. What is the story behind those titles?
Brice: Well, each title is either the title of one of the poems or a line from a poem. “The Inverted World,” was the original title of the manuscript. Judy picked “Flashcuts Out of Chaos” as the title: a line from my poem, “Fall, Up North.”
The section titles reflect the theme of each section of the book. The first section has to do with growing up in my alcoholic family. It truly was an upside down world that sometimes looked pretty good, but often was filled with drunken hatred and bumbling. “Wild Pitch” demarcates my humorous side. I agree with Billy Collins that humor is the gateway to the so-called “deeper” emotions. When I was active as a psychotherapist I could always tell that my patients were getting better when they began to spontaneously make fun of themselves and laugh at their predicaments. Humor is an achievement. It makes us human! (Humor puts the hum in human! Hee hee). It can also be, and often is in my poetry, a cover for immense sadness. Given a choice between despair and laughter, I’ll choose laughter every time.
“Milliseconds of Mystery”: that is a line from my poem, “Half the Distance.” I’m extremely proud of that poem which went through about 30 revisions until it was done and was accepted by The Atlanta Review, an extremely prestigious journal. You know, I didn’t remember sending that poem to The Atlanta Review and didn’t appreciate what a top shelf journal it was when I sent it out. They’ve published Nobel Laureates! I mention this to encourage writers who shy away from the big journals as I had before being accepted by The Atlanta Review. Go ahead and submit, the worst that can happen is they reject you, and rejection is the calling card of the tenacious writer! We wear rejection proudly. Rejection is our purple heart, but I digress. When Dan Veach, editor of The Atlanta Review, accepted “Half the Distance,” he said it was a “totally original modern love poem.” So I thought that line, “Milliseconds of Mystery,” would be a good title for a section of Flashcuts devoted to love of wife, life, and family.
TBP: That is certainly an inspiring story for new writers! It is amazing what a positive attitude and a little humor can do – especially when faced with a pile of rejection letters. I have to say that Milliseconds of Mystery was my favorite section of Flashcuts (I’m a sucker for love poems); no less than three poems from that section drew tears. It is useful to have these tones or themes demarcated by the three sections of the collection. Another aspect of Flashcuts that I noticed were the short quotes included before certain poems. These, too, add to the tone of each poem, as well as reveal some of your own possible inspirations or favorite authors. What made you decide to include various quotes throughout the book?
Brice: I’m a huge reader and I consider authors that I respect to be my teachers. If you have a great teacher, you want to pay him or her homage. I’m also a quotation collector. I looked for quotations that would sum up the different sections of Flashcuts; quotations that demarcated the central theme of a section. It was my great honor to have been friends with Jim Harrison, so there was a writer who was a teacher and also a friend. He just died in March and I miss him horribly. Anyway, the quote at the beginning of The Inverted World, “There is the question of whether life is long enough to get over anything,” sums up the traumas of living with alcoholic parents, even the traumas of having to take patients I’d cared for as a conscientious objector working at Denver General Hospital in the 60s to the morgue. Jim was my favorite writer. He named so many nameless feelings for me. I highly recommend all of his writing, especially his poetry. The quote is from his novel, Dalva, which I consider his masterpiece.
The quotation in front of Wild Pitch is from Nietzsche, whom I studied for about ten years. Nietzsche was known for his notion of “cosmic laughter,” which I think he tried to teach his readership with little success. The quote, “You must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star” struck me as a theme for my entire book. In the midst of chaos, which, to me, is life, you have a choice: despair or dance and laugh. Let’s dance!!
Almost the same thing is expressed in the Tennessee Williams quotation at the beginning of “Milliseconds of Mystery:” “Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.” To me, Williams is speaking of love. Love is the eternal thing we snatch out of the chaos of life, and it is eternal; it’s all that lasts.
TBP: That is beautiful. Those three quotes alone do indeed summarize the overall arc of Flashcuts, and the arc of life itself perhaps.
Now I’d like to move into a discussion of specific poems in Flashcuts, and their themes. The introductory poem, “Include a Brief Biographical Statement (Three Lines) with Your Poetry Submission,” is definitely one of my favorites in the book. It made me laugh aloud. It immediately caught my attention and painted a picture of you as a person before jumping into the poems that seem to be snapshots of your life. But it made me wonder – how truly autobiographical are the poems in Flashcuts? Are there any that are entirely fictional? Are there any that are entirely true?
Brice: I can say that, with very few exceptions, all the poems in Flashcuts are autobiographical and they are as true as I could make them. Obviously, a poem like “Wild Pitch” is a fiction. I’ve never listened to a baseball game where a great white owl swoops down on some rich lady and steals her affenpinscher! Still, wouldn’t that be a gas! Sartre and Simone get married is completely fictional, but almost all the other poems are true. It’s especially sad that all the poems about how sadistic and disturbed the nuns who taught me in grade school and high school are true—down to every detail. The poem, “Visions of Johanna,” which is about a wonderful nun, Sister Johanna, is a true rendition of how a terrific teacher changed my life. So, to answer your question, the poems are entirely true, even the fictional ones!! I think here of Chief Broom in Ken Kesey’s fabulous novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who says, at the beginning of the novel, “It’s true even if it never happened.”
TBP: Speaking of the nuns, I notice that religion and religious education play a significant roll in many of the poems in Flashcuts. The second poem of the first section, “Jesus’ Mother Didn’t Have Blond Hair,” immediately raises the themes of questioning, confusion, and even fear in the setting of a Catholic education. How (if at all) have your views on religion evolved, matured, or changed over time?
Brice: I suppose it depends on what you mean by “evolved” or “matured.” It took me years to realize how stupid and mean most of the nuns were who taught me at St. Mary’s in Cheyenne. Some years ago, my mother died. My great friend, Jim Hutt, who is also a psychologist and who also had twelve years of education by Dominican nuns helped me realize how horribly disturbed those women were. So I evolved into an even stronger feeling of disgust and a conviction that all religion is extremely harmful to human beings. I must say that the current pope seems like a wonderful person, a loving and truly spiritual man, but, in my opinion, his biggest problem is that he’s a member of a religion that treats women as second class citizens, excludes gays from full participation even if they are true believers, has historically heaped wars and misery on millions, and promotes such an inhumanly repressive and restrictive sexual doctrine that it has managed to attract droves of pedophiles and predators to its ministry (what we call “reaction formation” in my old trade).
I am an atheist who is a Buddhist (see why I love chaos?). There is no god in Buddhism although I think you can have one if you want, but there is no creation dogma or supreme being that you have to believe in. The difference between the Dali Lama and the pope is that the former promotes a dogma and a philosophy of life that allows him and his followers to actually enact the compassion that they preach. By the way, unlike some atheists, I have no interest in “converting” anyone to atheism and am happy that others find in their religion some peace. I do, however, resent it when they try to legislate their religious beliefs and force them on everyone else.
TBP: In “Wild Turkey” and “My First Poetry Teacher” you come to appreciate the nuns in leading you to poetry. Could you comment on the role of religion and religious themes Flashcuts, as well as how it may have influenced you as a poet?
Brice: Well, the appreciation of the nuns as muses is highly ironic. I think I could have come to poetry in much quieter and more peaceful means than being subjected to the cruelty of the nuns. Maybe they really did invent barbed wired, as James Joyce suggested.
I suppose the most influence that religion has had on my poetry is to present a vehicle for me to protest much of the sadism and idiocy I and others had to put up with during a Catholic education. Probably the most representative poem in that regard is, “Burnt Offering,” an absolutely true poem. It deals with a good friend of mine who had been horribly burnt in an accident and whose face was scarred by numerous surgeries. Our eighth grade nun, Sr. Silvester, cornered him on a back stairwell one day and demanded that he “wipe that smirk off his face.” The “smirk” was the result of the surgeries. He couldn’t wipe it off, so she decided to slap it off. The poem you accepted at Borfski Press [TBP: The Borfski Press Magazine – coming fall 2016] recounts another horrible incident where a nun, angry at a 7 year old male student who couldn’t stop talking, dressed him in a pink dress and made him go out at recess where, like red ants with lady bugs, grades 5-8 humiliated him. These are awful and traumatic memories and writing about them has helped me deal with them. I hope others find it helpful as well. I also hope that those still involved in religious education read these poems and make sure none of these type of incidents occur on their watch.
TBP: I can definitely see the evolution of your outlook on life through your poems, and I think that learning to cope with the dark sides of the institutions we grow up with is something with which a lot of readers can relate.
But if it is ironic that you came to respect and appreciate some of the nuns of your childhood, it is double-ironic that you appear to have a great deal of appreciation for a certain Charles Bukowski. We at The Borfski Press are huge Bukowski fans, so I had to admire your work even more when I saw the poem “Don’t Try” (“Don’t Try” is inscribed on Charles Bukowski’s grave marker in California). And since it was the old man’s birthday last week (Aug 16), I figure we better talk about him. What is the connection for you between this poem and Charles Bukowski? How has Bukowski influenced you as a poet, if at all? And do you have a favorite Bukowski novel, poem, or short story?
Brice: What a terrific question! It’s terrific because I’ve been asking myself for years what it is about Bukowski that I like. I’m absolutely obsessed with him. I’ve got all of his books. My favorite novel is Post Office. “It began as a mistake,” is probably the best first line of a novel in the last 50 years. Who could stop reading after reading that sentence?
Just this week two of my poems appeared in the journal, Chiron Review. I was overjoyed because they had published Bukowski back in the day. I felt so honored to be published in the same journal! And some time back, Vox Populi, published a poem of mine, “Soulium,” that mentions Bukowski in a way he might like, or you might like. Here’s a link: https://voxpopulisphere.com/2015/04/09/charlie-brice-soulium/. Maybe he would have asked me to finish the poem behind a bar in the alley!
But why do I like Bukowski so much? I even tried to write a poem some years ago about why I like Bukowski, but it went nowhere. It’s a total puzzle that you have made me rethink again. I love the grit, the sociopathy, the fact that he is completely different from me. I would never want to be Bukowski. I wouldn’t want that life of pain. He really couldn’t stand people and I love them. He’d tell you exactly what he thought and didn’t care what the consequences were. I lie all the time in order to be kind. He loved to brawl even though he usually got the holy crap beat out of him. I think that such behavior is juvenile, am a conscious objector and a great admirer of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. And yet I absolutely love Bukowski, his life and his writing. Maybe I like him so much precisely because we are so different. Maybe he is my alter ego? What do you think?
My favorite poem of CB’s: Born Into This. In this poem Bukowski takes us through the worst of the worst and finishes us off at the end. It’s a poem praising annihilation! Maybe a reason I like Bukowski is that he’s been through the worst and he’s handled it. Maybe it’s great to know that there’s someone out there who has handled the worst.
TBP: Bukowski’s work was heavily influenced by his feelings toward and observations of life and people in his home city of Los Angeles. “Don’t Try” creates a similar effect: planting the reader in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the midst of family violence, drinking, and a young boy’s perspective of it all. Do you see any aspects at all of Bukowski in yourself or your own life?
Brice: Again, a great question. I think I would have probably hated Bukowski if I had known him personally, maybe not. He’s someone I admire because he is so much unlike me. My father was an alcoholic and I’d rather have cancer—it doesn’t ruin as many lives. Twenty years ago I’d go to a party and say I was going to have two drinks and wind up having five drinks. My wife told me my personality would change and I’d become mean. That was enough for me. I quit drinking and never looked back.
“Don’t Try” has to do with Bukowski’s idea that you should never just try, you should do it or not. I was trying to be my parents’ redeemer. I was supposed to save their marriage. It was the job I was given. When I stopped trying to save them, things got a lot better for me.
TBP: And that is what Bukowski is all about, as far as I can tell. Bukowski did things, although he never appeared to try very hard.
Bukowski was also a lover of music (mostly symphony music), which brings me to “Setting Up Soul, 1967” and “The Kansas City Soul Association.” These poems stand out in Flashcuts. Not only is “Setting Up Soul, 1967” one of my favorites of the book, it reveals a knowledge of and passion for music on your part. What does music, and playing music, mean to you?
Brice: Music means everything to me. I love it, have to listen to it. I always listen to music while I’m writing. Right now I’m listening to The Sundays on Pandora. Before that, I was listening to my favorite violin concerto by Khachturian. I loved playing drums in KCSA. We were four black singers and four white musicians playing soul around Wyoming and Colorado in the late sixties. We broke all kinds of racial taboos. I felt so fortunate to live with these fine African American guys. They taught me a lot, not only about music, but about life. At 16, I was the youngest member of the band. They called me “Young Blood Hawk.” It was a great time.
TBP: What instrument(s) do you play?
Brice: I still play my drums: a Ludwig Oyster Pearl drum set with Zildzen symbols, the exact drum kit that Ringo Star played with the Beatles. I bought it in 1966 for $880. I recently had a poem published in the Paterson Literary Review about playing drums and this particular drum set. Maria Gillan, the editor, liked it so much she featured it on the PLR’s website. The poem is called, “Drumbeat,” and is the second poem down on their “featured” link. Here’s the link: http://www.patersonliteraryreview.com/poetry2016/. It deals with a particularly vivid dream I had when, feeling too sophisticated to continue with my drumming, I decided to sell my drums. If you read the poem, let me know what you think. It kind of answers your question.
TBP: Wonderful! Music and good literature are therapy to the soul. I am so impressed and truly moved by Flashcuts Out of Chaos. Publications like Flashcuts and authors like yourself are reviving the art of poetry. There is not a single poem in your collection that bored me or struck me as anything less than wonderful – except for one: “Bank of America.” On the whole it is a lovely poem, full of vivid imagery and characteristic of the tendency for life to thwart one’s plans. But I have to ask – has your 19-year-old opinion about Allen Ginsberg changed at all?
Brice: OMG! as the kids say. When I read “Bank of America,” I always pause after the part about not stopping to hear Allen Ginsberg chanting on that pile of rubble so that I can hear the groans from my audience. I have really lived a charmed life. I have very few regrets, but making that ludicrous judgment about Ginsberg’s poetry is one of them. I love his work now. I’ve read all of it and have read two biographies and have a wide selection of his poetry on my iPod. I actually think that Allen Ginsberg was a Buddha, a truly enlightened being, full of compassion and wisdom. I would have loved to have met him, but I knew it all when I was 19! Right?
TBP: Of all the regrettable opinions and decisions people have had at age nineteen, I suppose disliking Allen Ginsberg is not the worst of them J.
I would like to thank Charlie Brice, most sincerely, for taking the time to tell us more about his wonderful collection of poetry, Flashcuts out of Chaos, and wish him only the best of luck in his career going forward. The Borfski Press is honored to publish such an esteemed poet.