Chris Cunningham and Hosho McCreesh are poets and friends who expose their creativity and souls to one another through their collected letters in their book titled Sunlight at Midnight, Darkness At Noon, published by Orange Alert Press. Their letters touch on a broad range of topics from writing poetry to their political views and the political climate they find themselves in. I could not put this book down and found my own mind wandering on the many issues brought up in their letters and poems and was compelled to interview them about their book.
1. Your book is comprised of the excerpts of letters you have written to each other during 2002, how did you go from writing letters to the idea of creating a book from them? Did you feel any fear or hesitation in the words that would be exposed to your readers?
CC: Jason at Orange Alert Press had posted excerpts from both Hosho’s and my letters in the past at his blog http://orangealert.net/ and when he started the press, we discussed the massive volume of correspondence that was sitting in boxes at our houses with Jason and he was intrigued. We sent him a batch and he decided we had something there, something different from anything thus far in the Indy Press, a collection of words that detailed the work and life of poets in the twenty first century struggling to carve some meaning out of an apparently meaningless world. As for “fear,” no, no fear at all; I stand by everything I write, and if I put it down on paper, I’ve got no problem with it being published as widely as possible.
In addition, I think Hosh and I both really felt like these letters could give any reader a glimpse into the minutiae of the creative process, into the “why” behind making art, into the desperate need for communication and connection between artists and those who derive support and sustenance from what they produce. We think the letters have a universal quality in their laying bare the human spirit as it strives to find a voice in the wilderness.
HM: I absolutely felt over-exposed & reluctant in terms of taking the letters & making a manuscript. I feel shy about half the time, so that was an obstacle for me. But the thing I just kept coming back to was how powerful the letters were, for me, as a reader. I've always been a fan of letters--& have read lots of famous writer's letters...it's always been a window into their work for me. So when Chris & I started writing, I'd read one of his letters & think "this is just, hands down, some amazing writing." So I just believed in the strength of the letters--as something both literary & as a kind of non-fiction snapshot of 2002 & of the lives of 2 nobody poets at the dawn of another ugly century...which was a book I'd never read. & the idea of letters between nobodies appealed to me--it meant that "who said what" was no longer important & that the reader could focus, instead, on what was being said. That's about as untethered & free as writing could ever get. Chris had already been talking about publishing a book with Orange Alert--& Jason mentioned that maybe he & I could do something as well...so we talked about it & Jason decided we'd try it. It was a hell of a gamble--putting out this book as the 2nd offering from Orange Alert Press--& I respect the hell out of him for it.
2. There are several details I would like to touch on that you mention frequently about your writing process to each other. You expound on the rare art of letter writing and the even rarer art of using a typewriter. Could you explain your feelings on these two in conjunction and how you feel about electronic mail’s increasing role in society?
CC: For me, the typewriter is a musical instrument, as important to the process of my creation as a good guitar or the perfect horn. It allows me to feel and hear the keys cutting into the paper as I work. I am an improviser when it comes to writing and there is a tactile, concrete quality to the making of esoteric ethereal poetry when I lean over the humming keys of an old typewriter under the pale sixty watt light at five a.m. that is sorely lacking staring into a glowing screen, pecking at plastic air.
As for the computer and email, they are merely tools, allowing for the instant transmission of information, and while it is surely possible to convey the same emotions, the same intent, there is nothing like holding a real live fucking letter in your hand after a long day at work, peeling back the gummed flap of the envelope, unfolding the paper, feeling its heft, its weight, the bond under your fingers, and then scanning over the black ink and words cut deeply into the flesh of the paper by metal keys driven by the need to communicate something often beyond the words themselves. They aren't bad as long as their proper role is understood, though email and text messaging and the like do surely limit the thought and reflection and deeper exploration of circumstances present in a letter writ over a period of hours, days, nights.
HM: I've always felt that a typewriter had more in common with a musical instrument than it does a computer...it's hefty, it's metal, & when you get going, it bounces & jumps around...it's got it's own kind of rhythm--especially the non-electric typers I use. It's a more immediate connection than writing on a computer--which I've never had much luck with. As to writing a letter--the first thing you need is time--to just sit & gather your thoughts, & the will to simply respond as honestly, in each moment, as you can. If I was angry, or tired, or brash, or sick of the goddamned world--I wanted that all to be there, in the letters--I wanted it to be a true & accurate moment captured in time. You have to give yourself to the writing--be as fearless as you can. The friendship, as it developed, made it easier & easier to do...as I felt a real kinship with Chris, & we share a similar outlook on the joys & ravages of life. I wish I was a purist--& that I only wrote on a typer...but these days, I admit it, email is easy & quick. But there's not much art in an email--because it is so easy & quick...or at least I don't feel they are too artful when I write them. I still prefer typed letters. & I absolutely love getting stuff in the actual mailbox...Technology's role in society is prominent--too much so, for me. I don't have a cell phone, I don't have Facebook or Twitter or MySpace or any of that...I've never been too terribly interested in those sorts of things--I march begrudgingly into the future.
3. You both also write about being a true artist with the idea being that you create because you must and that you must also reveal the truth. Given the media and the academic world’s constantly changing view of the arts, what do you hold to be the universal truths in “art” as a word and all it encompasses?
CC: Art is the pure expression of our deeper humanity, and in its perfect form it takes small personal experiences, often arising from suffering, and transmutes them into universal depictions of the human condition: what it means to face death with full awareness of its inevitability and still endure the daily ups and downs of existence. Art helps us go on, it is a song that makes us smile, a poem that makes us think, a painting that transports us out of the ordinary and into the sublime. It forges bonds and illuminates darkness. It cries and it dances and it burns. It shows us that truth is the silhouette of a stray dog walking down a wet alley at dawn.
HM: I don't see truth as a rigid or unchanging thing...but I see MY truth as fairly consistent--as do most people, I'd say. As writers, I think it's our job to be as fearlessly honest about our own truths as we can...that you're supposed to put things down as clearly as you can, as honestly as you can, and--no matter what--keep searching for understanding, meaning, keep trying to make sense of the world. I have had the amazing good fortune to work with some of the very best bookmakers in the small press--& it completes a kind of cycle when the work reaches new readers & the people who've been there with you from the start get another beautiful little book for the shelves. But the truth of any art is the constant, dogged pursuit of it--of somehow reaching that higher ground, & then going further, pushing ourselves beyond. If your work is true to your spirit then, regardless of what comes of it, it won't be pandering to some popular themes of an era & will, instead, verge on our shared humanity. It might not mean anything to anyone but you--but--hell, that alone is enough, if you ask me. & chances are, someone somewhere will understand it, or recognize something familiar in it. & that's as good as it gets. If you aren't honest in your work, you'll look back on it years later & see nothing but cheap little parlor games dressed up for doomsday.
4. With your poems you reveal the world around you as it happens and the political climate of the times that are included in this book. May I ask you to share one or two of your favorite poems and the explanations behind how they came to be written?
CC: One of my favorite poems isn't in SUNLIGHT but the story that inspired it is, written immediately after it happened, and mailed off to Hosh; it's the poem "last meal of the night" from my chapbook of the same name by Blue Monk Press back in 2002.
last meal of the night
he looks at me with red eyes
thru thick round glasses,
heavy black frames slipping forward
on his human nose.
it is two minutes until closing.
I tell him,
“go ahead man, what do you need?”
the kitchen grumbles, I can feel
anger washing against my neck
in hot tired waves.
he mercifully orders the
easiest thing on the menu.
his will be our last meal of the night.
the cook is fast, throws it
to me and I bag it up.
he reaches out to take it
and asks me my name.
I tell him.
he then reaches out to shake my hand.
“I know you are trying to close
but I really needed this food.
my brother is up the street at the university
and he is probably
going to die
he is still holding my hand and I can see his eyes,
the space beyond his eyes, shielded sort of by
the thick lenses,
grow wider, but not very much.
“thank you for your kindness.”
he drops my hand and is gone.
the hunger we cannot stand to bear alone
HM: I've picked 2 poems from the era of the letters, my time in Europe. I have some wonderful friends in Switzerland, & while in Europe, they let me stay with them--&, from mid November to mid December, in their family chalet. It was amazing--the kind of thing I'd always dreamed of being able to do--wake when rested, eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, sleep when tired, and otherwise just listen to music, read, write, and paint...for a month! It was an amazing gift...one I can't ever repay. & the 2nd poem I include below came from reading liner notes on the back of an old Rachmaninov album in the chalet. I'd basically paint during the day & write at night...& I kept that record player going the whole time.
On Why I Came Here To Live Alone
In A Chalet In The Swiss Alps
For An Entire Month...
I came here to
write, draw, paint.
I came here to learn more French.
I came here to be alone,
just to do it.
I came here to get the hell away
from the buzzing of a world
gone to rot with its
a world stammering,
trying to think up ways
to be rich, to be beautiful,
to be happy,
I came here to shiver occasionally.
I came here to starve a bit.
I came here to struggle,
to be stuck here
& have to do everything
rely on nothing
I came here to survive the frozen dark,
a simple joy,
to see what
(Published by Bottle of Smoke Press)
In 1897 Rachmaninov Fled The Theater Before
The End Of The First Public Performance
Of His First Symphony &, At Age 26, Decided
His Career As A Composer Was Through; Devastated
He Nearly Gave Up Writing Music & Spent The Next
3 Years Racked With Self-Doubt & Anxiety, Depressed,
Frustrated & Wandering Amid The Lavish Parties Of
& From All That Came His 2nd Piano Concerto...
Which is to say this:
What we all
is to find our own
(Published in FIRE)
5. Your affinity for each other and the support you provide each other is evident throughout. My favorite phrase from Chris as he waits for Hosho’s response is “you better not be dead you motherfucker.” How did you find each other and how often do you continue to write letters? Are they still as lengthy and intense as the ones we get to read as your audience? Can you explain what the support and camaraderie mean for each of you in regards to the other?
CC: I read one of Hosh's poems in some mag back in 2000 when I was first starting to send out work, first starting to explore the world of the small/indy presses. It floored me ("8 Nights & Their Subsequent Sunrises..." was the poem) and I asked an editor for his email address. I wrote him a short note asking if he had any books I could buy and his answer began a correspondence that filled up literally thousands of pages of paper over the ensuing years.
Our physical letters have waned somewhat since about 2006, but our level of communication remains very high, and now we can actually talk via chat in real time which wasn't even possible for us Luddites back when we first met. We still believe strongly in the necessity of letter writing and we do manage to get off a doozy from time to time, and I value Hosh's friendship and support more than I can say. Those letters and all the words we trade between us shore me up and help me go on, make it possible to believe that humanity has a chance as long as there is one more person out there burning to live.
HM: To me, I've always felt the basis for most enduring human relationships is one of student & teacher. By that I mean you can both learn from & teach to the people you become fast, & enduring friends with. Of the many great friends I've been lucky enough to have over the years--there's always been things I could learn from them, & things I could teach them as well. So, to me, that's been at the core of the letters from the beginning. As I said, I saw in Chris a real kindred spirit--& the letters happened pretty quick. We've trudged along the alleys of the small press for years now, and in a way it's like working together--punching in every day at the job. It's been very rewarding to have someone to bounce ideas off of, someone will tell you what works, what doesn't. I think we understand what the other wants to accomplish in their work, & we can tell each other--"that sucks," or "this one's there." Even without the letters, I'd be a fan of Chris' writing. I suppose we were insane to think that the pace could continue--in 2002 alone I think we traded about 500 pages of single-spaced, typewritten letters--but, yes, the letter writing has slowed. But not for lack of wanting. Our immediate daily demands, life, seems to sap all our energy...but we both look to an easier day when we can get back to the letters. I really miss getting a letter every few days.
6. Some artists delve into politics and other artists steer clear of it. During your letters you speak frequently of the Bush administration and your views on what it means to be American. Can you explain how these shaped your poems at the time and what beliefs you expressed in regards to politics and Americanism?
CC: All my poems are informed by my experience as a human being living in America right now and by all the political and social winds extant buffeting my little corner of the universe. I tend to not write strictly "politcal" poetry (or didactic screeds, etc.) but rather fill the background of my poems with the realities of modern life and let the metaphors do the work for me. The letters however are a place where artless rants and wild tangents are allowed, and I run around screaming sometimes in that arena, for good or ill.
HM: In much the same way you'd talk with a new person you meet at a party or whatever--there was a certain amount of "figuring out where the other guy is coming from" in our letters. Our similar views, politically, organically grew from our frustrations with both what America as a society valued, and the Bush Administration as the figurehead for it. The blind, unquestioning support; the refusal to ask questions, or demand evidence to make informed decisions; the knee-jerk reactionary approach to the very complex, and difficult questions America faced...this was not what America was ever supposed to be. To sacrifice any moral standing we had in the world for paltry, temporary economic gain...the tireless march to war...this was antithetical to the America I imagined. But America is still a young nation, & we still have a lot to learn. I love what I imagine we can someday be...but getting there will take a lot of difficult work. & the way it all came to bear in my work was anger, frustration, rage, exasperation. The pains of that administration are still very fresh both in our country & across the world. It's been the death of actual & meaningful debate...as people make up their minds & then dismiss any evidence that doesn't support their world view. & debate is the cornerstone of America & of actual freedom. I don't know how we can get back there (if we ever were there)--short of a non-judgmental, mutual respect & listening to each other. The punditry on all sides clouds the true & necessary debate, &--despite pretending to be unbiased--serves only to further divide. For the love of god, people--fact check your shit through non-partisan, non-profit organizations--the more the better!
7. The Obama administration is now in place and I’d be interested to know if his being in office has shaped any new poems and ideas on being an American. How has the new administration and their actions affected your beliefs and opinions you have set forth in your book?
CC: As for shaping new poems, no. My poems are born of small moments rendered in intense detail and the "meta" of the political world lacks the necessary conflict between hope and suffering that informs my work; politics is an equation designed to result in the transfer of money and power from the average American citizen to the vested interests of the Corporate Oligarchy which rules us, and that, in many ways, precludes any sort of real hope or change because it's all about the money and what that illusory construct represents. Obama is a politician and as such is a certain type of animal built to survive by skating over the surface of the truth and bending perception towards his handlers interests, in reality not much different in action and intent from the other animals lowing and shitting in the corrals of Congress. While he is a whole lot better than Bush or McCain or Palin or any of those motherfuckers, he remains a functionary of the interests who paid to get him elected and will, in the end, do their bidding, no matter the glowing rhetoric to the contrary.
Having said all that, I still believe in the founding documents of this country, the rights they elucidate and the tenets they lay out, and I still have hope that given enough shit to eat, Americans will get tired of the taste and demand something more delicious for supper.
HM: I have tremendous hope...& was both delighted & amazed that America elected Obama. I think the administration has tremendous ideas...& I sincerely hope that they pursue them. Thus far, they've had one shit sandwich after another & simply keeping us above board has been a challenge. I hope that the sacrifices made to get things done thus far will prove to be worth it...that remains to be seen. But how refreshing to have leadership that will look at facts, will own their mistakes, & one that refuses to make limp-brained, unilateral decisions based on some sort of wizardry or mystical incantations. I remain hopeful...
8. At some point, Hosho leaves the country and spends quite a bit of time alone with his creative process.
8.a. For Chris: Have you had the chance to do anything similar and what were the results if you did? If not, do you hope to find a place to retreat to and do the same thing?
CC: I've spent some time running around the country trailing after various hippie bands and during that time I worked on finding my poetic voice, discovering how I wanted to say the things I had in my head (though I confess I am but an antennae for the muse, a receiver, a cosmic radio tuned to the Poetry Channel), but I've not ventured very far out of the country. A couple jaunts to Canada and Mexico but that's really it.
I've found a place to retreat, though, and it's called Asheville, NC; me and the woman and the dogs roam around twenty acres with a stream and well and a huge garden and plenty of room between us and humanity at large. Fuck you, Atlanta.
8.b. For Hosho: How did that affect or contribute to your creative abilities? What did you notice about the reactions of the local population during your travels when you told them you were a poet or artist in comparison with our country?
HM: The reactions of folks in Europe were much, much different than in the US. When introduced as a "writer" or "painter" overseas, I often had beers bought for me, dinners, & people were both thankful & encouraging--something that was shocking. There is a powerful sense that art is still something important in life. More often than not, when people in America find out I write and paint, they want to know what my "real job" is. It's easy to see why so many people "become their job" in America...it's the first thing anyone at a party wants to know about you, & it's the first thing most people want to tell you about themselves. I am sure that's also true in Europe--but my personal experience has them much more intrigued by the art and less by work. "Work" in Europe is just something that you have to do so you can live your life. In America, it is your life. As to the effect it had on my work--I think I finally saw the real world value of a life lived in pursuit of art & truth & meaning...art is a language that goes beyond man-made borders...& connects people through the shared human experience. We recognize the joys & struggles in work that speaks to us (& don't "get it" in work that doesn't--but still others might, hence it belongs). It was a tremendous experience.
9. The cover of your book is beautiful and encompasses so much of what you both enjoy. The typewriters and hands mirror each other and the hands have nuts and bolts either tattooed or transposed on them. Can you explain the process of creation of the cover designed by Chris Roberts?
CC: Chris Roberts somehow captured the fucking essence of the book in his first attempt. Jason asked him to come up with something and sent him the text, and in a blisteringly short amount of time Chris handed in a Just Exactly Perfect Cover. The typewriters are our actual typewriters, my IBM and Hosh's beloved and now long-lost Remington Rand (read "The Ballad of the Remy Rand," the next section of our letters from January to March of 2003, in the forthcoming BUK SCENE 2, which you can find out about in the forum over at http://bukowski.net), and the texture and feeling of the artwork really sing. I love it.
HM: Chris Roberts literally blew us away with the cover. Jason knows & has worked with Chris in the past & Jason brought Chris to the project. If you're familiar with Chris' other work, you know he's usually using a much more vibrant, lively, and sometimes even chaotic color palette. But he & Jason talked about the book, sent Chris the manuscript--and Chris just inherently understood the book & what we wanted to accomplish. He laid out some ideas in an email & they all sounded great...but I still couldn't visualize where he was headed. But he knew exactly what he wanted, & I think what we wanted to see--which is always a good thing. & when I opened the pic file the first time, I was floored...just amazed. It was absolutely perfect. I couldn't be more pleased with the entire production, start to finish: from our manuscript to Sean Lynch's work on the guts, to Bill Roberts' hardbacks & clamshells--every step along the way was both really professional &, beyond that, the work of true artisans who cared about the project. They all took our words and made a really terrific book.
10. What kind of guidance did you receive from Jason Behrends, the editor, of your book? Did he help you choose what to include of the letters for the book?
CC: We worked closely with Jason in choosing what to include, and Jason was instrumental as a catalyst for the team that ended up producing the variations of SUNLIGHT; the layout by Sean Lynch of Ireland's Ten Point Design, the cover art by Chris Roberts, the handmade hardback editions by Bill Roberts of Bottle of Smoke Press, the music on the cd by Atlanta's Noot d'Noot, and releasing it upon the unsuspecting world. Jason really believed in the book and worked tirelessly to make it a reality and I think he has done OA Press proud. Thanks again, Jason.
HM: Jason was terrific--& he really saw the potential in the book from the beginning. He really involved us in the entire process, & we talked a lot about all the things we wanted the book to be. The letters themselves are fairly unwieldy--& so we decided to organize the manuscript around a few thematic threads: art, politics, the role of the artist in society & specifically America (as that's our experience)--as these were the real meat of our conversations. So that was where we did the bulk of the editing, in a way--up front & nailing down the approach/vision. After we had the blueprint in mind, it all pretty much fell into place. In my mind, Jason showed some real guts gambling on this kind of a book for the 2nd book from his Orange Alert Press...and something vastly different from the first book (Ben Tanzer's retro-cool, twentysomething couples novel). Jason believes in his books, & supports them...& I expect the press to continue to put out a wide variety of books, and--if our book is any indication--take some more big chances on some really unique projects.
11. In addition to poetry you both have other artistic interests. Would you mind sharing those other interests and do the interests combine to influence each other? As in, do your poems inspire painting or writing short stories and vice versa?
CC: I write short stories and paint, and I'm working on a novel (and have plans for one or two more if the world doesn't dissolve into warring mobs of idiots flinging their shit and firing their pistols at one another). I'd say the overarching ARTFORM, the seeking after meaning inherent in its pursuit, inspires all of it for me, and its genesis is being alert, aware and alive in America and paying attention to the world around me.
HM: We both paint, and write other things as well...short stories, someday maybe novellas or novels. I've written a few short films, & want to work on longer screenplays as well--as we've talked about trying something with film. I am always curious, always want to learn more, try new things, etc. I'd love to learn to sculpt, & I've just started dabbling in photography...I just enjoy the artistic process--it's strangely calming for me, I always sleep better when I'm doing something creative. It's hard with a 9 to 5 to ever feel like you accomplish enough...but that's not a new song. I can't say that my own paintings inspire my own writing, but I do find inspiration in other people's work...from everywhere--masters to people in the small press snapping photos.
12. Your book has been out for a little while now, what has been the response so far from the readers that you know of? What have been the positives and negatives of releasing a book of personal letters?
CC: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. A recent review can be found at http://www.deckfight.com/2009/08/review-sunlight-at-midnight-darkness-at_12.html. ; Seems like most folks think it reads like a good novel rather than a collection of letters between two idiot poets. I'd say the best part about it is the format; there is nothing like it anywhere these days.
HM: So far the response has been really terrific. It's always a relief when people see, in a book, the things you'd intended to be there! It's been well received by readers even beyond the small press--artists, for instance, see something familiar in the struggles of 2 nobody poets! There have been handfuls of people I really respect that have showered the book with kind words...so it's been really rewarding. The down side is this notion of being more exposed than usual--but, it's been worth it...definitely.
13. Would you have done anything differently if you started it over? Are you working on anything collaboratively for the future that we should be on the look-out for?
CC: I would change nothing; the hardbacks are really fucking majestic, pure bookmaking works of art, and every aspect of the project fell into place so perfectly that it was a bit scary.
There is the BUK SCENE segment of our correspondence forthcoming, and at the first of 2010, Oh, and we also appear together in an anthology edited by William Taylor, Jr. for Lummox Press called DOWN THIS CROOKED ROAD due out in a few weeks.
HM: I wouldn't change a single thing. This book has been a dream--start to finish.
As to the future, for the 26 lettered hardback editions we each wrote 26 poems, & typed them up on our respective machines--made what we called double-manuscript broadsides. For the clamshell editions, we each did 7 paintings...and Bottle of Smoke Press will put all 52 poems & 14 paintings into a book at some point...Bill is doing some amazing things these days--hardbacks, clamshells...the guy is amazing.
Another small patch of letters is slated to appear via Purple Glow Press (a Dutch & Canadian outfit) in their magazine Buk Scene #2--it's about a month's worth of letters, picking up where SUNLIGHT ends.
Thanks so much for allowing me to interview you about your book of letters. Please keep us up-dated on future artistic endeavors and congratulations on an excellent read.
If you enjoyed the interview and want to read the book for yourself you can get a copy for $16.00 + Shipping at Orange Alert Press!
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