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More a Kind of Delirium than an Aesthetic

An Interview with poet Kevin Opstedal
by James R. Miller


Poet KEVIN OPSTEDAL is the author of 21 books of poetry, the most recent of which are Coastal Disturbance (Bikini Machine), published by Pale Music Press, and Rare Surf, Vol. 2 : New & Used Poems, published by Smog Eyes.  He is also the publisher of Blue Press Books and the editor of an array of sub-radar literary magazines, the latest being Blue Book #8 which he co-edited with poet Michael Price.


Opstedal was born and raised at Venice Beach and currently lives in Santa Cruz, California.  The coastal influence is omnipresent in his poems and a very particular California aura pulses in his lines.  Harris Schiff has written in his webzine $lavery: A Cyberzine of the Arts—“Kevin Opstedal’s work is informed by a west-coast avant-garde lyric sensibility filtered through random hard knocks and modifed by a sweet, real-life-derived, fuck-you attitude. The poetry’s resultant gentle toughness is consistently astonishing.” 


I caught up with the poet at his home in Santa Cruz.  A tiny house far from the street, hidden along a brick path, tucked in among incredible wandering vines and ivy.  We cracked open a couple bottles of Pacifico and began …


Kevin Opstedal- … I hate knowing the tape’s rolling, you know, I don’t feel all that quotable at the moment …


JAMES MILLER- We can turn it off until you get rolling.


KO- Jesus, the pressure … naw, let’s go, fire away …


JM- Okay … your poems are informed by the California coast, with sky, sea and concrete being the elements you continually call upon, within an imagery that comes across as part description and part emotional or mythic dreamscape.  Do you see yourself as a regional poet?


KO- Not regional, no, because that seems to imply a limitation upon the poems that isn’t fair.  I mean the place names and the settings of most of the poems do take you to a particular place, geographically, and I guess that would tend to pigeon-hole the work, but I’d like to think there’s more going on.  Was Robinson Jeffers a “regional poet” really?  or Frost?  What about Ted Berrigan?  Not that I have any pretensions here, shit, this is all rhetorical, right?


JM- I’m not sure what you mean by rhetorical, but …


KO- You make up questions and I make up answers.  Who do you think of as a “regional poet”?  Gary Snyder?  Delmore Schwartz?  Coleridge?  Bukowski?  The Ramones?  Categorizing poets kinda makes me weary, I mean, I think it’s best to steer clear of the overwhelming desire to label.


JM- But there are schools of poetry that you can trace the lineage of; New York School, Black Mountain …


KO- Oh yeah sure, I’m not saying there isn’t.  Tradition, and what the Buddhists call Dharma transmission.  But for me it’s just poetry.  That’s the lineage.  I am a devout poet, in the Catholic sense.  We can wrestle over definitions here if you want, but to tell the truth I’m not interested at all in setting down a definition or theory as to what a poem is or isn’t.  And I’m certainly not interested in reading anyone else’s speculations.  I want the song, not the critical theory.  It all comes out in the wash eventually but when you speak of “Poetry”, or as I like to say “The Poems”, I think of that long unbroken transmission carried from poet to poet, stuff that still rings true, then as now.


JM- Some other poets, such as Noel Black, have written of your devotion to, not only your own poetry, but to the poetry of those you’ve published in magazines and books.


KO- “Devotion” is a nice way to put it, yeah, devout, but it’s really an obssession—more a kind of delirium than an aesthetic. As far as my own poems are concerned, that “devotional delirium” … I just find that I can’t go to any conscious level with any of it.  I mean I could, but I avoid it at all cost.  I’m sure there are circumstances where a rational linear take comes in handy but I’ve never been there. 


JM- So it’s the sub-conscious, intuitive …


KO- Subliminal, sub-mariner …


JM- Subjective.


KO- It has to be doesn’t it? 


JM- When did you start editing and publishing magazines?


KO- Oh, man, a while ago … like 1990 I guess.


JM- That was GAS Magazine, right?


KO- Yeah, ancient history.  It went from GAS to Blue Book to a series of one-off mags like Yolanda Pipeline’s Magazine, Cleavon Little’s Magazine, Augustus Truhn’s Magazine, etc., and back to Blue Book.  All the books and magazines I've published were and are produced under very funky, subterranean conditions.  Each has been like a guerrilla operation. 


JM- And yet you keep cranking them out.


KO- It's just stubbornness on my part.


JM- Who are your favorite poets writing today?


KO- Well, that’s a tough question … I read a lot of dead poets and I don’t really read much new stuff except from a few like Lewis MacAdams, Joanne Kyger, Duncan McNaughton, Harris Schiff and Anselm Hollo.  I’m always interested and jazzed to see what they’re writing.  Then there are a bunch of younger poets that no one has read but they should—Noel Black, Michael Price, Micah Ballard, Cedar Sigo, Sunnylyn Thibodeaux—they’re great.  I always turn to them for works and I’m always stoked to print their poems whenever I have a chance.


JM- You're deeply involved with poetry and publishing and yet at the same time you are something of a recluse. 


KO-  Well, I’d like to be a recluse.  My ambition is to be a hermit and I suppose we all get what we wish for, eventually.  I tend to keep my distance from … I mean, I don’t play well with others, and I feel more than a little suspicious of schools, groups and so-called movements, which is I suppose a detriment to any kind of “career” poetry may have once offered me.  I’m not really a recluse, I just live in Santa Cruz.


JM- There seems to be a secret, or very personal mythology at work in many of your own poems. Sometimes this comes across as stubbornly subjective, almost opaque, and other times it’s deeply resonant and, to use one of your favorite words, translucent.


KO- Win a few, lose a few.  Yeah.  Some get translucent.  I don’t have any problem with a completely subjective poetry, but you know there are so many levels upon which a poem hinges, like floating hinges, that work in some Escher-like or Rube Goldberg way—essentially it’s just the heart talking, but not purely emotional, or emotional only, or sentimental, but true at its source.  Then there’s the art of it, the ear, and the way it falls upon the page.  I guess I’d prefer it came across as translucent rather than opaque, but there’s only so much you can do with what you’re given, and you can’t always know what will happen when someone else’s eyes touch it—I mean you can’t be concerned with that.  I can’t anyway.


JM- What are you reading now?


KO-  I’ve been reading a lot of Shelley and Rimbaud, as well as a book about ocean waves.


JM- A surfing book?


KO- No, it’s oceanography.


JM- Any magazines or books in the works?


KO-  Last year I printed The River: Books One, Two & Three by Lewis MacAdams, and chapbooks by Sunnylyn Thibodeaux, Adam Degraff and Harris Schiff.  So far this year I’ve managed to publish a new Blue Book magazine and a few chapbooks.  Right now I’m unemployed and there’s no money for anything.


JM- What about your own poems?


KO- Well, I’m always writing, and I’ve got a few new poems sketched out in my notebook.  I’ve also got a last ditch Hail Mary anorexic book of selected poems out from Smog Eyes Press.  It was brutally cut down from a much larger manuscript and published in May of this year, but I don’t think anyone knows about it.  You know how it is.  I don’t expect to be appearing on the Jay Leno Show anytime soon.


                                                                                                    July 2006


Copyright (c) James R. Miller, 2006