Gordon Massman: An Interview and Four Poems


Gordon Massman is the author, mostly recently, of the companion volumes Death and Love, both out from NYQ Books this year. His work has appeared in Antioch Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Literary Review, and RATTLE, among others. He teaches writing and literature at The Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. The poems below are reprinted from 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle (NYQ Books, 2011) with permission of the author.


Okla Elliott: 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle represents over twenty years of working on a single project. How did the project present itself to you? How did it mutate and grow over the years? And, with a project like this, I have to wonder how you can know when it’s done. The numbers could literally go on ad infinitum.

Gordon Massman: I was around forty when I lost faith in formal titles which to me monumentalize a work into a monolith, looping the last line up to the title in a never-ending closed circle, removing the work from relationship with past or future pieces. Freeing the work of the conventional title in favor of numbering it in the order written among cohorts places it in a context and continuum—as a step in an evolutionary process. So, this project presented itself, consciously and philosophically, through an intellectual callisthenic. Suddenly I liberated my pieces from standing alone and allowed them to be part of something larger than themselves. I think of 0.174: The Complete Numbers Cycle as a single—I hesitate to use the word for reasons stated below—poem.

Spiritually my subject—making visible my subconscious longings, urges, fantasies in naked, visceral, glaring terms—came to me in the way a seed is naturally programmed to become a tree of its species. I was a hyper-sensitive child in the hands of monsters who compressed me into a certain kind of seed programmed to blossom into a raging twisted tree. I did not select my lineage; my lineage selected me. During and for ten years following an emotional crisis which occurred at age thirty-five, I pursued Freudian and Jungian psychoanalysis which opened a crucial field of examination—the subconscious. I felt then that my writing, heretofore consisting of stale programmable subjects was derivative and lacking. To my mind, all frontiers had been written by past masters to perfection save one: the human interior turned inside-out. In this, there are few, in any, antecedents. (Only Ted Hughes’ magnificent book Crow comes to mind with Anne Sexton, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell, wonderful writers though they were, following tepidly behind.)

All that remained for me–the most difficult part of this project–was to find the courage to strike genuine ore regardless the consequences. The mutation you speak of is the mutation of gazing more and more deeply, bringing up in particularized imagery that which drives me, and presumably, what drives most human males. Oddly, women like my work more than men as I think it confirms what women have always known about men, but which men want to deny.

The four hundred pages of 0.174 represent a handful of the entire project which is over three-thousand pages. It could, indeed, go on ad infinitum as you suggest, and I think that I will take it up again after I finish the third volume in a trilogy of books NYQ is publishing (Love, Death, and God.) I would like this numbers cycle to extend into late middle and old age—I am sixty-five—to record what maturity brings.

OE: I see an affinity between your poems and the fiction of William H. Gass. Both are experimental and postmodern in certain ways, and both seem interested in delving into the uglier and more uncomfortable or untoward aspects of human life and thought. What drew you to the formal aspects and contents of these poems?

GM: This is a core question and forces a hand. The term “formal aspects” implies non-porous walls between genres, a concept I reject for my own writing. The truth is that I do not believe in the concept of poetry distinct from prose as if each contained a separate circulatory system, an exclusive blood flow. I believe that “poetry” and “prose” are the same being named writing, and that some writing is more powerful than other writing. Some writing which we commonly call prose is the highest order of what we commonly call poetry I have ever read—Virginia Woolf, George Konrad, Hermann Broch, William Faulkner, Victor Hugo, come to mind. While some writing which we commonly call poetry is the lowest order of prose I have ever read, sanitized—I won’t name names. I consider myself a writer, not a poet, who formalizes on an instinctual level and who believes more in the power of words than in the power of form. Honesty will design and occupy its own vessel. We have evolved past what once served us well: strict academic boundaries. We are past the notion of fortress identity. The messages in 0.174 made square brick-like formations that cracked off lines jarringly to maintain smooth edges. They just wanted it that way for no rational reason.

I dislike labels such as “experimental” or “postmodern” because they imply the critical world’s lack of imagination. Writing is experimental or postmodern only because the reader/critic before encountering it could not imagine it. The terms essentially arise out of a failure in the public imagination and are irrelevant to the creating artist.

Likewise, what are untoward and ugly but a culture’s failure to include them in what they want to believe beautiful in human existence. Rage is beautiful. Envy is beautiful. Self-hatred is beautiful. Shame is beautiful. These terms “ugly”, “untoward”, “uncomfortable” and the like, (“vulgar”) accept as justifiable a mass lack of imagination, an unwillingness to accept as intrinsically valuable, even beautiful, the many facets within us. I am not speaking, of course, of what causes harm to others, of psychopathologies, but of the commonplace and universal egotisms which rampage through all.

I am, therefore, comfortable making visible and owning publicly that I possess these turbulent virtues which drive me and interest me more than the placid ones. By doing so, I reason, I can baptize and make them legitimate upstanding citizens. To closet and cloak them in shame is to deny fundamental truths about one’s self and to create a flammable pressure in the heart.

OE: Your newly released companion volumes, Love and Death, are also a large project. Could you tell us a bit about them and how they came about?

GM: One of my legs is filled with death, the other love. When I walk they flash and cut like scissors. Death was easy. Since an early age I’ve hated the reality of death and every day I awake with its heaviness on my chest. A few years ago within the span of nine months both my parents died with me standing helplessly bed-side. When death has one’s throat death is implacable. A few months after the second death the poems poured forth, immediate present tense snapshots and long contemplative incantations, the final being a twenty page rock riff. Death required from me this exorcism. During this process my psychotherapist dared me to write a book on love, romantic and otherwise. But being heavily invested in despair I balked for a long time until finally grudgingly writing a love poem, then grudgingly writing another, then grudgingly another until an avalanche happened and I found myself mirroring death with love: immediate present tense snapshots and long rock riff incantations. The two books were published as companions, or perhaps as scissoring legs. On the rare occasion I do a reading I alternate death with love, love with death until the two blur into a single experience, which they are. Each compressed the other into a rich and tragic existence.

I am now finishing the third book making this project not twins but triplets, this last one titled God. Now I have three legs, or perhaps, more accurately, two legs with that smaller one in the middle!


Am I more like steel or fruit inside? If you drilled deep
through me would I fi nally break your bit or ooze pear-meat
and weep like a godless Jesus of Nazareth? I want to know.
Drill me to the core. Screw out big chunks of me in your deep
steel grooves and spit me free, you with your blindness and
vulnerability. Make me spasm and curl with your all-nighters
and narcomania my teenage son. Find my vanadium or peachpear-
plum blood. You have drilled through my fl esh, it fl ew
apart like a burn, and several inches into the beams in my
bones, but I’m still steadily beating. Push hard on your tool.
Drill through my collar past my lungs into my heart pushing
with all your weight, feet off the ground, grinding out meat;
fi nd what’s there. Get to my mettle. Drop out. Coke up.
Fuck the syringe. Find your own gore in vehicular winter. Am
I cold? Am I mechanical? Can I walk through closed windows?
If you peel back my surfaces do I glisten? This is your mission.
Let me see from a distance the crack pusher’s wing fold
over your shoulder and usher you forward, your two backs
fusing. Let me witness dissolution. It is the father’s privilege. To
strip off my sirloin like meat off a prey to fi nd what’s lying
inside my cage. Let me see graphically what your brain isn’t
getting: high school teacher’s spittle, orange lunch room chile,
that geeky conventional gangly camaraderie, auditorium pep
rallies, an appropriate foreign language, stupidity, time, time, time.


And this little piggy squealed “no,no,no,no,” all the way home.
And then all the toes were accounted for: the big, the middle, the
nondescript, nondescript’s neighbor to the East, the itty-bitty
which made baby laugh like a nautilus. And then the toes blinked
out like a disappearing photograph, and baby went on a miniature
vacation to Puerto Vallarta where a lion almost devoured
him like a fortune cookie, but he escaped and wind rattled the
blinds like dangling bones, and he whimpered and whispered a
prayer-precursor to the Divine Death Overture, something about
soft protrusions and blue rain. And baby Carroll decided he
was having none of it and shattered two panes in the living
room belonging to Daddy and his entourage one of whom played
the Ace of Spades and raked in the kitty while on the artery a
fl ying mechanical scream engulfed horizontal human moans
in a white steel cube smudged with a red intersection and far,
far away two events happened simultaneously: an imaginary
Holstein jumped over an idiot moon keeping constant vigil on
the continuous catastrophe, and in the silo accompanied by
secret platoons of yellow arthropods Jack fi nally found Jill’s
gooey ooze representing nucleic acid’s undeniable invincibility.


Testimony of the best pig in the sty. I’m king mounter. I
shove it in. Gertrude craves me. Matilda moans for me.
I grunt and eat slops pushing away others. I get mash.
Dark splotchy pink, stout nose, neckless, number 77
tagged to left ear, luckiest number around. Rump like
a cement mixer nobody kicks, squiggly fi rm tail, blood
to tip. Super Pig, pig literati, nineteen hundred twenty
six pounds, hog literally, the Indiana hogs, borne of
Chester and Duchess, Chester Iowa State Fair Champion
Derby Hog, Duchess six hundred pound 4-H Purebred
Champion, daddy shot me into her like a roman
candle. I burst forth like Ben Hur. Sunburnt from so
much fucking, out from mud, into mud, ear tag jangling
like revolutionary, Illini nights reclining under
stars, contemplatively smoking, pink eyelids, lavish
lashes, back legs crossed, I love everything, fences,
twigs, friendship, water trough, soft breezes drawing
across skin, the smell of piss, I, Davy Crockett pig,
adventuresome, undaunted, courageous, proud, out
to farthest post, to gate, scratching along wire, sniffi
ng earth-untrodden, snorting intoxication-liberation,
left-and-right pig, pig of The Nation and The New
Republic, chest-out puffed-up herd-guardian wise
warrior pig, pugnacious purple irremovable squealer.


The whole thing goes kablooy, hypochondria torments sister;
dementia creams Daddy; mortality frightens but cruelty
out Mother’s skin; forty years of tolerance collapse under
Larry; BDD splinters me in circus mirrors; preemie lungs
asphyxiate Kevin; Depakote sloshes Bradley’s brain; Hep
C like a rabbit nibbles cabbage of Allan’s liver; genocides
cook and serve severed leg; have another chilled eclair,
sweaty chocolate, chewy shell; oh baby; testicles strike
like factory workers, tongues fall mute; rocks clog urethra,
plaque arteries; well, smasheroo; brisket, lamb, claw, stew
slide off table into Magical Mystery Tour performed by
nutcases at Unity Church; refugees land in black fog of
dereliction and fl ies bite beautiful faces near McFadden’s;
Witcomb crawls into death’s bomb shelter everything rips
through: guilt, shame, dejection, despair, paralysis, rage.

Franz Douskey: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems


Franz Douskey has published in Rolling Stone, the Nation, New York Quarterly, The New Yorker, and Las Vegas Life. His readings and travels with such notables as James Dickey, Allen Ginsberg, Ai, Charles Bukowski and F. D. Reeve are legendary. Some of his writing has been performed by Frederica Von Stade of the Metropolitan Opera Company, The Yale Glee Club and The Heaths. Along with writing, Franz Douskey produces radio shows for WQUN, Quinnipiac University, and hides out with the horses at Giant Valley Farm.

The following interview took place via email and the poems below are reprinted from West of Midnight: New and Selected Poems with permission of the author.


Okla Elliott: A thought that returns to me regularly is that in the table-of-contents of a journal, prose is broken up into fiction and nonfiction, and a lot of people are intensely serious about that distinction. Poetry, however, is not divided in such a way, so readers are left to assume whatever they prefer about a poem’s factual status. Of course, it’s the metaphor and joy of invention that finally carries all writing, no matter its genre or relationship to historical fact, but, that said, I think poems by war veterans or abuse victims or even highly paid lawyers that depict their lives as accurately as possible might gain something by being read as aesthetic depictions of real events. I bring all this up because I get the sense that many of your poems would be classified as creative-nonfiction-in-verse, if we bothered to make this sort of distinction for poetry. I am thinking particularly of your poems “Remembering James Dickey,” “Eric,” “Burning the Gypsies,” and others. Could you speak a bit about how your personal experience and travels or historical facts have informed the content (or even the form) of your poetry?

Franz Douskey: Personal experience and travel are strong forces of my writing. I like being there. About “Remembering James Dickey”… We got to know each other during the New York Quarterly annual Poetry Dinners at the Paris Hotel. We stumbled through that very dignified place often enough that the staff got to know us and would lead us safely away from their guests to preserve the hotel’s reputation. “Eric” was a student. One of those who came around to “take” my classes even when he hadn’t signed up. I still recall that phone call. “Burning the Gypsies” isn’t from direct experience, but the result of three separate forces that came together: my research of the Holocaust, my books of Gypsy life and lore, and Hell, I’m part Hungarian. Disturbing what we do to each other. Not every experience turns into poetry, but I find it difficult to be creative, inventive, etc. Enough extraordinary people and events have been part of my life that I seldom look inside. There is a Delphic maxim often ascribed to Socrates, “Know thyself.” I have no interest in knowing myself. What a dull book that would be.


OE: What got you started on poetry? And what do you think helped you develop most as a poet?

FD: Reading Kenneth Patchen, both prose and poetry, got me started writing. What came out was poetry. What helped develop my writing was travel. When I was excited by an author’s work, I sought out his and her books and, then sought them out. I visited Kenneth and Miriam Patchen often at 2340 Sierra Court. I was the only visitor allowed in the house, except for Kenneth’s dentist. Travel and reading caused me to visit Galway Kinnell, in Seattle, Henry Miller, at Big Sir, George Hitchcock, in Santa Cruz, and while living in Tucson I was strongly impressed by the poetry of Richard Shelton. I met a lot of writers there, including Raymond Carver, John Weston and Charles Bukowski. I traveled to several places, including New Orleans, with Bukowski, Gypsy Lou and Jon Webb, Bukowski’s first publishers (LouJon Press).

As I published more often, I traveled and did readings with Robert Penn Warren, James Dickey, William Packard, Allen Ginsberg and F. D. Reeve. Some of the Ginsberg-Douskey readings are in the Ginsberg Archive, at Stanford University, in Palo Alto. So I’d have to say, reading, traveling and getting to know the writers was a strong foundation.


OE: What advice might you give young poets today?

FD: Me give advice? First thing that comes to mind is: Why care what other people think? Self censorship is deadly for every human, and that goes triple for writers and especially poets. One time in a stop over at O’Hare, the plane attendant announced that our ground time would be brief Brilliant. How right she was and is. We don’t have forever. These bones are rented and we don’t know when the lease is up. Write, write, write, then revise, leave the work alone, go back and reread it, revise, revise and revise, knowing that revising is every bit a part of the creative process as writing down those original sparks. Go to readings, leave work early, travel, put yourself in weird experiences, even dangerous ones as long as you have an escape plan. Read a few writers, but make certain that you don’t fall in love with their style. Constantly become yourself. Leave the bough. Take on life and leave all blame behind. What you think and how you write are two elements uniquely you. And never take advice from anyone.




things move quickly here
the roads are mined
they have trucks just to carry
human parts

I miss you a minute ago
I was smoking and out of the corner
of my eye I thought I saw your head
on my pillow I guess I’m losing
my mind

death scares me
I’ve never seen so much of it
bodies on the roads
blood seeps through shirts and blouses
heads leak and mouths eat dirt

and death could come now
while I smoke and listen to music
anyone might be the enemy
it is scary

you should see the faces of the living
worse than the dead

ten years ago it was different
now we are traveling
into something cold and dark

sometimes I think I’ll never see you–
if I get shot up
they’ll send what’s left in an empty glove
waving goodbye like a flag



Cat Dying of Cancer

too sick to do anything else
she twists in a chair to lick herself —
this is strange
because she has cancer
of the tongue

I guess it’s clean but I don’t let her lick me

one night I’ll turn around and see nothing in
her eyes
but me in my white robe leaning over her

her tongue will’ve fallen out and slid behind
the cushion

one day my sister will come over with her
and the one who searches the furniture for
will pull out a piece of dried fruit
only it’ll be tongue of cat

as is his habit he’ll probably eat it

next time his granddaddy asks him
cat got your tongue? only you and I will know



Breton Speaking

First of all, there are the demented
fritillaries and raucous hummingbirds.
Yesterday Rimbaud came over to watch
Fantasy Island. His cough hasn’t improved,
still he won’t stop smoking.

It is difficult here. We hardly see
anyone. The night is lacerated by downpours
of shadows, a violent silence wings down
from the vertiginous, embroidered stars.

There are massive snails in the woods.
Trees are toothpicks in their jaws.
We lose old friends every day. Some of us,
especially Camus and Char, wonder if this
is heaven or hell. Celine says
it’s Paris, after the war.

Our wives are still on the other side,
wearing satins and sachets,
a minimal sign of virtue.

Did I tell you about the bats? Last year
only five people lived to tell about them.

Then there are the parties, equally deadly,
that one is expected to attend. Verlaine
threw up a week ago, and he still hasn’t
been able to eat anything but Wheatena.

Eluard hasn’t gotten over dying. He says
he wasn’t ready. He has something that
would clear his reputation. He has sent
a letter of protest to God,
the true originator of surrealism.

Meanwhile, any hope for hypogeous
restoration dwindles.

I once said, The future is never.
I didn’t know how right I’d be.

Lyn Lifshin: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems


Lyn Lifshin: A Micro-Interview and Three Poems


Okla Elliott and Lyn Lifshin

Okla Elliott: You organized A Girl Goes into the Woods by themed sections (autobiography, relationships, family, war poems, and so forth). How did you decide on these particular themes, and how did poems that might fit in more than one section end up where they did? Also, if poems were written years apart yet fit the same theme, what differences did you find in your own thinking on the theme?

lyn2Lyn Lifshin: Though I hadn’t thought of it until you asked the question, it seems many of my books (all three Black Sparrow books—Cold Comfort, Before It’s Light, and Another Woman Who Looks Like Me—as well as Persephone) are arranged in a similar way with similar themes. In contrast, are the many books that focus on one theme—all the equine books: my just published Secretariat: The Red Freak, The Miracle; The Licorice Daughter; My Year with Ruffian; and Barbaro: Beyond Broken. And many other books are one theme: Malala; Knife Edge & Absinthe: The Tango Poems; Tangled as the Alphabet; Blue Tattoo; Marilyn Monroe; The Doctor Poems; etc. Actually I had not realized until looking thru some titles how the one theme book is so prevalent!

As for how I decided on these particular themes: when I first started writing, I wrote mostly political poems and was referred to as Mr. Lifshin. Later I wanted to show the variety of my work, not just political poems but erotica, family poems, nature poems, love poems, poems of place and of course, mother and daughter poems. (I had written no mother and daughter poems when I edited Tangled Vines, a mother and daughter anthology that stayed in print in various printings and versions for about 20 years—but from that time, it became an obsession for many years) Some poems were triggered by requests by editors doing anthologies: Richard Peabody ‘s Marilyn Monroe and Barbie anthology, got me going on poems that turned into my own books, as did the request for poems about Malala, Joni Mitchell, Dick for a Day, requests for poems about an earthly Jesus—a request for poems about Obama led to a series, as did requests for poems about September 11.

Sometimes I’ve wanted to do a collection of new poems but often the editor/publisher wants to do a best of. For A Girl Goes into the Woods I selected what I thought were the best and strongest poems whether they were new or old. It’s hard to say what difference I found in new and old poems on the same subject. I know sometimes when I read old poems, I change the language but it’s hard to make any generalizations. It’s true some poems could have fit in more than one section but mostly I think they are where they should be! I’m not sure I can give a true answer about how I may feel differently about a certain theme when I wrote it in the past and now am writing about it again. I think it would vary too much from poem to poem.

OE: Your poems “Barbie Wonders about Buying a Coffin” and “Thirty Miles West of Chicago” both touch on childhood and death in quite different ways—the former by playfully personifying a child’s dolls, the latter with a dark and heart-wrenching heaviness. Tell us a bit about these two poems, how you came to write them, and maybe discuss the wildly different styles employed.

LL: As I mentioned, when Richard Peabody asked for Barbie poems, I did intenselyn3 Barbie research not ever having a Barbie doll myself and just imagined her in a variety of situations— enough to do a whole book of Barbie poems. I don’t really remember when or what mood I was in when I wrote “Thirty Miles West of Chicago.” At different times of my life and in different places I seem to write at different times of the day. Somehow I remember when I first began, I stood at the kitchen counter. More recently, I write on the D.C. Metro going to ballet, an hour metro ride going and coming back, or in a cove in the living room in an apartment rented in DC with Janet Reno on one side, a drug dealer across the hall and the owners of the Fifth Column, a night club—they always came back about 3 am, loudly. Always thought they were selling drugs too—but it was income tax evasion or something like that. I wish I remembered the circumstances—I just don’t.

OE: What’s your current project? What can readers look forward to in the near future?

LL: After publishing 5 books this past year and having some of the most stressful experiences in and out of publishing, I planned to take a real break and just dance—Argentine Tango, ballroom. But some road blocks there. But I did get back and took a private class this week. In the shelf above my desk, I have about 60 spiral notebooks—I still write poems by hand and then am always way behind typing them up—now they are howling, waiting for me. Some of them go back to the early nineties…so that is a huge enormous undertaking and not a lot of fun since it’s hard to read my handwriting and the references. But forthcoming in July is Luminous Women: Enheduanna, Scheherazade and Nefertiti, a totally different kind of theme for me. It started off as a project with a painter—selecting women thru history who left an indelible stamp but the plan never materialized and I was left with poems about these three women (and also Pachamama—so I suppose that could be a book on its own) and another small book due in the fall, Moving Thru Stained Glass: The Maple Poems.


Thirty Miles West of Chicago

paint chips slowly.
It’s so still you
can almost hear it
pull from a porch.

Cold grass claws
like fingers in a
wolf moon. A man
stands in corn bristles

listening, watching
as if something
could grow from
putting a dead child

in the ground.


All Night the Night Has Been

lightening with moths

white behind the walnuts

If a woman couldn’t sleep
and came to this window
in this light her skin
would glow like bones

Clouds over the full moon
even with the wind

What would have been nuts
look like limes
on the white stones,

it sounds like some-
one tapping on a glass
coffin. It sounds

like someone tapping
from within the tree


Taking My Mother to the Bathroom

I lead her, a
child waking up
from a nightmare,
dazed by light.
She lags, hurries
then, half cranky,
half grateful.
She wants the
door shut, then
says open it,
wants my hands
the right way,
wash in between
my fingers. She
says the wash-
cloth is too
wet, too cold,
too soapy. The
towels are too
heavy. You don’t,
she spits, cover
your mouth. Go
home, you should
not be here to
see me like this.


Lyn Lifshin is the author of over 100 books, and her work has appeared in such journals as American Poetry Review, Another Chicago Magazine, Georgia Review, Iowa Review, The Literary Review, New York Quarterly, and Ploughshares, among many others. The above poems are included in A Girl Goes into the Woods: Selected Poems and are reprinted here by permission of the author.