The Superlative Quotidian

An Interview with Chris Gordon

by Jack Galmitz

JG: Hello, Chris. Welcome to A Hundred Gourds.

CG: Hello, Jack. Thank you for having me.

JG: I understand from reading some biographical material about you that you work with the developmentally disabled. Do you think this kind of work, exposing you to those who hold vastly different views of reality from those the majority consensus do, has influenced your poetry?

CG: Absolutely. I work with people who have altered brains. That’s really the only definition. They need a little more support. Most of us get that naturally. We weren’t separated from our families. Put into institutions. About a third of us will get a brain injury as an adult. It makes you see things differently. That’s the first criteria for a poet.

JG: Well, I have to admit that in the past my own work brought me into institutions of the developmentally disabled and the rooms were caged and some of the people wore helmets to protect them from hurting themselves and I felt threatened emotionally and mentally. I take it for you such a population is now just a part of the human landscape and this widens your view of what’s real and not real. Would that be fair to say?

CG: That was the 80s here in Oregon. The whole thing got toppled and it took about ten years to get people living and participating in the community. Most studies show that if we take care of the most vulnerable members of society, everyone receives better care at all stages of their life.

JG: Yes, I was referring to my experience at about the same historical period. I’m glad to hear things have changed and those with differing understandings of the “real” are included in the society at large. That explains to me in some small measure some of the series of poems you have been writing in the last three years, the three series of poems, Invisible Circus, Chinese Astronauts, and the Crow poems. They are all series of poems of the “unusual” squarely located in the most quotidian of environments and how they interact. Do you see any correlation?

CG: Absolutely. For me the quotidian has to be unusual, otherwise we’ve slipped into a kind of death. If we don’t remake the world everyday, we’ve stopped paying attention and the animal within us has given up.

JG: Of the three series of poems I mention above, what was the chronological order you wrote them in?

CG: I wrote the Invisible Circus back in 2009 specifically for the first issue of MASKS. Bruno Munari’s beautiful “Circus in the Mist” is one of my enduring favorites from my childhood and I took the English title as a leaping off point (the Italian title means something like “A Mist over Milano”). I decided I liked the idea of an Invisible Circus, calling to mind the Invisible Colleges of certain esoteric traditions. From there my fondness for Ray Bradbury took over and the sequence wrote itself. The whispers in Italian lead me to Il Corvo.

I wrote The Chinese Astronauts the following year. Despite its obvious affinity to the repeated image sequences that have proliferated recently, this isn’t meant to be a metaphorical or potentially surreal poem. It’s a paean to the actual three astronauts of Divine Craft 7 who were all born the same year as me. Not a very experimental entry into a poem, but I liked some of the surprises it yielded.

The crow sequence all came to me on a Saturday morning this past April. I was feeling a pressure to speak without the time or the venue to do so. They’re still a little rough to me. Some distracting repetition and a lack of rhythm in some of them. I was also missing the single line form, which I used fairly exclusively up until 2006 when I started playing around more with the three line form. I felt that some of my single line haiku had become unwieldy, pushed to the 17 syllable limit and squandering the potential grace and slightness of the single line form.

JG: Before I begin discussing the individual works, I’d like to offer a general theory I have regarding them. It seems to me that you juxtapose, or create dysjunction to use a more modern term, what I call the supernal, or totemic, or extraordinary within the confines of the most commonplace and thereby create tension, confusion, pathos, profundity, the whole range really of human experience. That is why I asked you earlier about your work, because “madness” was long ago associated with possession by the divine and oracles and shamans and poets were considered touched by the divine. The title of your Chinese Astronauts, which was not included in Roadrunner Haiku Journal where it was published, was “Divine Craft,” so I think I am on the right track.

So, let’s take a look at “The Invisible Circus.” For me it’s one step beyond what we in childhood called the flea circus, but far steeper. It is hilarious, but also horrific in its way and I would like to know if you would agree that it is somewhat synonymous with the Unconscious, what goes on hidden behind the screen projection of the rational mind and world? As an example, let’s take one poem first:

Your watch stopped when
You bought your ticket to
The Invisible Circus

Like the unconscious, particularly the id function, is timeless in psychoanalysis and is essentially without a negative (as that is part of the conscious mind). Do you agree with this understanding of the poem?

CG: Caveat emptor: Don’t go to the Invisible Circus!

JG: Okay, Chris, we’ve been fairly warned and you have no liability should anything untoward befall us. Let me site a few more of the poems from Invisible Circus that lead me to interpret it as the unconscious.

Underneath the pillow
Making your neck ache
The Invisible Circus

This strikes me as tellingly pointing to the fact that access to the Invisible Circus is through dreams, precisely as psychoanalysis understands it.

The Invisible Circus
Goes from town to town
Never really moves

And, like the unconscious, though it is experienced in real time and space, it has no location other than the mind of the dreamer or person awake and aware of their unconscious thoughts.

Cut your thumbs on
The Bearded Lady
at The Invisible Circus

The knife at your throat
A hand down your pants
The Invisible Circus

These poems evoke the sexual ambivalence and sexual danger associated with unconscious desires, forbidden desires. Yet, desire is the capitol of the unconscious, isn’t it?

The girls are all Clean
and well-oiled at
The Invisible Circus

CG: While I’ve been very conscious over the years of using such poetic tools as juxtaposition, indeterminacy, sampling, and randomness, to create haiku, I’ve been thinking in terms of images, feelings, senses, the matter of the poem. That the difference lay in the comparison of elements, not so much in the valence of meaning or the shifting of themes or focus.

In other words, I haven’t thought of it as an overlay of two different worlds, only an overlay of experiences. The mystical world and the mundane world are the same to me. Or so I strive to make them so. Sometimes it’s easy. Sometimes it takes a great knack. Which is to say I’m very pleased you see this in my work.

JG: Chris there is even more evidence in the Invisible Circus series to suggest its relationship to the unconscious, which Freud remarked was always experienced as the uncanny by consciousness. Just consider the poem

Your limp goes
Away on the grounds of
The Invisible Circus


Everyone speaks Italian
in whispers at
The Invisible Circus


The cards are all
Blank at the tables at
The Invisible Circus

All of these poems clearly are impossible to the rational mind, yet common enough and plausible enough if dreamt; the unconscious as the realm of the uncanny and fantastic seems evident to me in the above poems. How do you experience these poems? Are they for you, as they are for me, emblematic of the co-existence of another, spectacular and menacing (sacred) world behind the scenes while simultaneously within the scenes of everyday life? And wouldn’t you agree that some of our deepest fears exist in this realm of dreams and suppressed thoughts in reality? Just look at this powerful, fairytale-like poem in the collection:

Your blind grandmother
Almost sold you to
The Invisible Circus

It awakens all our deepest dread of ambivalence towards those we most trust as children and it does so with some humor, given an invisible circus and a blind woman, one who could not see what is not even visible.

CG: Yes, the Invisible Circus could be synonymous with the unconscious. Yet at the same time the sequence is composed of very tangible elements, and while the poems may be impossible to the rational mind, they communicate perceptions and feelings that at their root are very rational, though perhaps uncomfortable and difficult to communicate.

Whatever the unconscious is, it’s made of ideas. We live in a world of ideas. Some of these ideas are “real” and some of them are “insubstantial” or “fanciful.” Somewhere in our minds and hearts all ideas have equal value and substance. This is where we dream. This is where we destroy ourselves. This is where we’re reborn. This is where we tell stories. This is where we make sense of ourselves. This is where we make sense of the world.

JG: Chris, let’s turn our attention to your second series, The Chinese Astronauts. This is a fascinating series that for me works on a similar principle to the Invisible Circus, except here, instead of an irruption of the uncanny and unconscious into the quotidian, we have the supernal, or divine, or extra-terrestrial in relation to the quotidian. The results, of course, alter the consequences significantly. And, in this series, you present both the pre-and-post orbit of the astronauts and this has great significance, as I see it. I think in the poems that address the preparation of the astronauts, we can see the ineptness (and its humor) of modern man to create a mythology of the modern age to live by. Then, in the post-orbit poems, where ordinary men have touched the divine, become extra-terrestrial (in the sense of having been freed of earth’s atmosphere and gravity), I think we can see once again the inability of modern man to create a myth to live by, but the predominant feeling tone here is one of pathos. The Chinese, an atheist country, named the space-craft the Divine Craft and you followed suit in naming your series with the same title. The flight itself well represents what Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung, both interpreters of myth, the night sea journey, in which man goes on as symbolic voyage and is altered by the experience. However, to quote Campbell, modern man lacks this myth-making power in his modern incarnation. From Campbell ( from Atheist Nexus):

“When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come.”

What is your experience of The Chinese Astronaut series and is it in keeping with the overview I have presented?

CG: No, there was no “night sea journey” for the Chinese Astronauts. They might as well have not gone into space. The only reason the astronauts are Chinese is because the poem’s about some Chinese astronauts. If we took away the title of the poem and the reference to the Premier (in one of the poems you don’t cite), they could be any astronauts.

Here’s a poem I wrote a few years before the sequence:

The Astronaut

The Astronaut drove nine hundred miles in a diaper. They wear those sometimes for lift-off and re-entry. In the trunk of the car a steel mallet, rubber tubing, and some duct tape. Arriving at the airport at 3am she put on a wig and a trench coat and sprayed her romantic rival in the face with pepper spray. The other woman, who was apparently involved with the same Astronaut as the other Astronaut, managed to escape in her own car. The Astronaut’s Lawyer said his client just wanted to have a talk with the woman. And sure. This makes sense. In space the most simple of tasks sometimes require a Herculean effort. This explains the diapers. This explains the rubber tubing. This explains the hacksaw. Maybe people shouldn’t go into space. Maybe they should stay at home with their daughters and leave the steel mallet in the tool shed. Or maybe it’s the other option. Places that are hard to get to. Maybe we should just stay there once we’ve arrived.

We are all astronauts. We are all shipwrecked on unfamiliar terrain with broken tools and unreliable habitats. Habits from the old days that frighten us and propel us forward. Make us ashamed before our ancestors.

The radio might work. But maybe no one’s listening. In the mean time we’ll use what we’ve got. Tell stories around the fire.

JG: If you don’t mind, I’d like to visit the last poem, since it is my favorite and also shines light on the rift, at least for me, between the return of the astronauts to the ordinary world and their experience in space.

Back at their day jobs
The Chinese Astronauts
Remember weightlessness

This poems comes closest, I think, to fulfilling what Campbell had in mind as noted above. The colloquial expression of the first line sets the tone of the repetitive, heavy nature of the ordinary world and having passed through a transcendent experience, the astronauts do retain something: weightlessness or freedom. If we look at the pre-flight poems, I think we have a fine expression of the ineptitude, the inadequacy of man to create a mythos for this age.

Their hands fumble at
Pockets that aren’t there
The Chinese Astronauts

The Chinese Astronauts
Aren’t able to touch
Their own faces

The Chinese Astronauts
Their suits are different
Made in foreign countries

Their wives dress
Like stewardesses
The Chinese Astronauts

These poems read somewhat like slapstick spaceman works. Yet, they actually clearly express the dilemma of modern man: how to prepare for and create a legend equal to the modern world and signify this. We have an emphasis on awkwardness, on inabilities here. And, I think you create what I will call an idiomatic approach to underscore this fact. By idiomatic, I do not mean that you use idiomatic speech; what I have in mind is that the expressed scenes and actions are idiomatic in as much as there is a figurative meaning quite separate from the literal meanings depicted. Was this deliberate on your part?

CG: I would say no, as the literal meaning is an intentional distortion. I would say rather than the supernal entering the quotidian in these poems, we have the transcendent becoming the mundane. The Chinese astronauts are portrayed via banal tableaus or with incidental details of their journey, not exciting stellar vistas or important scientific tasks, not even noble efforts to better humankind. It’s just another day at the job. The quotidian has not been infused with the vastness of the universe, this vastness has been reduced to a series of alienated tasks and photo opportunities.

JG: In the end, the Chinese Astronauts, have not gone through the night sea journey, have not gone through a mythic adventure and this is precisely the failure of modern man: he has no myths to live by. The first thing that strikes us is the economic interest of the astronauts; they have no apparent interest in opening the doors of perception, of psychic change and wholeness.

The payload’s still
A mystery to
The Chinese Astronauts

Having gone through an extra-terrestrial experience, having “touched” the sublime, the government cannot represent this appropriately and here is one of what I earlier called idiomatic poems:

Carried from the capsule
The Chinese Astronauts
Sit in blue fold-out chairs

The best the government can do is create an ad hoc representation of space in the “blue…chairs.” I feel a great pathos in this and the other post-space poems. What was once the great achievement of humankind, the power of mythmaking, is apparently lost and these poems highlight this fact to an unprecedented degree. How do you feel about this reading of the post-orbit Chinese Astronaut poems?

CG: If there is pathos here, my intention in that area is the portrayal of the degradation of the transcendent experience into the empty ritual.

Yes they had their moment with the divine, but it was temporary and passed. They were on everyone’s minds for a week or two, and then they had to go back to their day jobs and feel an emptiness and longing for the rest of their lives.

We get to vicariously savor their pioneering efforts, without the damage of traveling to the limits of human experience. You can only touch the gods occasionally. Otherwise you die. It’s like the pharmakon. The experiment. The messenger. That’s the astronaut. They come back from a journey and are unable to translate that joy into their everyday life.

JG: Chris, let’s finally turn to the last of the series you’ve written in the past three years, the Crow poems that you wrote in April 2011. I find them to be an intriguing reinvention of the archetype of the Trickster, a figure prominent in folklore, and an introduction of this figure within the world. The Trickster is often represented as an animal who plays tricks and otherwise disobeys the norms of culturally correct behavior. The Trickster, though it breaks the rules of the gods or nature, ultimately has a beneficial effect in the world. Let’s take a look at some of the ways you express the amoral nature or mischievous nature of this figure.

a last few tricks ask the crow

a second glance at your wife the crow

cheats at love but not at cards the crow

implied by the crow numberless is the way to go

the crow gets you to pull down your pants

When you sat down to write on that day in April of 2011, did you conceive of a series of poems about this Native American archetype, or did you simply choose a subject and let your imagination go?

CG: My usual process is to start with an image or narrative fragment and see where it takes me. I don’t typically write with themes or messages in mind. I find a compelling entry, sometimes, and develop it until I feel a sense of completion. So no, I wasn’t thinking about the Trickster when I wrote the crow poems. But perhaps in some way I apparently was. I guess I’m just saying that my intention in writing is merely to create something that seems engaging to me afterwards rather than to muse upon an intended outcome.

JG: You know, I never found understanding the archetype of the Trickster easy until reading your poems. I can see now how the Crow, as a Trickster, transmutes the quotidian and thereby aids us in keeping alive, just what you alluded to earlier in the interview. The ordinary world seems made up of odd elements, and yet when put together, when fathomed, are a unity, even:

three plus five that’s the crow

Or, the many facets of what the world is is illustrated in this poem:

at the gem show he’s invisible the crow

And, the Trickster also teaches us something about time, about what’s important, about letting go, about the ordinary as both creator and creation:

never on time but never late the crow

the crow has nothing to do with doors

dances in the rain because he can the crow

after you sleep the crow

not really black he’s purple the crow

Were all these functions of the Trickster archetype available to you consciously, or did some of them just spontaneously appear as you wrote the series?

CG: This is a piece of wisdom I got from William Stafford, a poet who has been very generous with his ideas about poetry and composition. His essay “A Way of Writing” (from Writing the Australian Crawl, University of Michigan Press, 1978) provided a new perspective for me that suddenly transformed much of my disregarded writing into my real poetry, so that my polished pieces seemed artificial and ungainly in comparison. I also found it easier to get my writing sessions started, having let go of the notion that I was trying to achieve an intended result.

In regards to the Trickster transmuting the quotidian, I found a brief series of haiku I wrote just prior to the Crow poems, which may explain the need for the emergence of a trickster. It’s titled “The Dead Parts of Me.” I’ve attached it. I would say they’re the closest I’ve come to anti-haiku.

The Dead Parts of Me

onion grass my son pukes in the sink

nails one of them in my foot

the moon who cares where it is

your feet they’re nicer than mine

bottle caps they rattle among the spoons

your panties entwined with my odd socks

the crow says something for the crows

asphaltheat and foreign policy

the dead parts of me pester the rest

stale crackers it’s easy to put them back

the cat’s meow what’s that really about

the penny not as old as it looks

the extra napkin always gets tossed

raincheck nothing to do with the rain

your fingerprint consistent prostitute

the place on you I know you can’t touch

box tops they usually tear anyway

sassafras people still actually say that

your twat I’ve never called it that

all the knives are clean I hit the lights

toothpaste not sure what I’m supposed to think

JG: In Native American Trickster myths, the Trickster, in this case Crow, allows us contact with the sacred through laughter and letting go of rigidly held categories of the real. I think this is a great triumph on your part, because certainly in this series of poems we are not dealing with two realms, but the sacred and secular are well joined. Crow takes us out of time, out of our usual understandings of the nature of the ordinary world, and leaves us in a newer version of the same world we already inhabited.

more than all you know the crow

did you say bless you to the crow

even in empty spaces the crow

your plans are funny to the crow

Do you think in this series, you have engaged in a modern myth making that is the prerogative of the poet and have succeeded in making the mundane and mystical one and the same?

CG: As for myth making, which can an intentional and mechanistic process, I would say I hope I’m just part of the process of receiving, remaking, and passing on the stories that have captivated me and encouraged me to be a poet in the first place

JG: Chris, I’m afraid we’re running out of space and time, so I would like to make some remarks in closing. For those readers who would like to read your earlier work, they can find examples at your Blog/Publication Site ant ant ant ant ant haiku. I strongly suggest to readers that they take the time to read these works, because they answer a conflict that has arisen recently in the haiku community: whether haiku can be seen as equivalent to mainstream post-modernist art, on the one hand, or, on the other hand, whether mainstream post-modernist art lives up to the standards of what is traditionally construed as haiku. Chris Gordon answered this seeming dilemma seventeen years ago in the affirmative and continues to do so; his haiku is poetry of the highest order and complexity and remains true to the virtues of the tradition of the form. That he has been doing this alone for so long, without fanfare, steadfastly steering a new course for the genre says a great deal about his character and confidence and humility.

Chris has expressed to me that the three series we discussed represent the bulk of his haiku in the last three years, because he has turned his artistic talents and energies to the visual arts. For those interested, they can find an abundance of his art work at mrcr3w.deviant art. You will find beneath the examples a space bar to press which will reveal five pages of Chris’s art. He is an accomplished artist working in photography, collage, and assemblages and if you take his hint about how he views his creative process, paying attention to the comparison of elements and overlaying of expressions, you will be richly rewarded. Even simply viewing the work will be sufficient, because they are so startlingly stunning that they will strike you on a visceral level.

Finally, I would like to say that Chris Gordon is a great teacher. He has shown me that by doing your best, you show self-respect as well as respect to others. This was something my father tried to teach me forty-five years ago and which I have only learned by working with Chris. So, I am grateful to him for reintroducing my father to me.

I believe that the three series of poems we reviewed in this interview represent his mature period: the poems are clean, clear, simple, with a lightness of touch, yet there is not the slightest sacrifice of profundity in them. This is much the same as it was for Matsuo Basho four centuries ago, when in his mature period he taught lightness as the essence of haiku.

CG:I just want to add in conclusion that I appreciate the high regard you have for my work, but I hope I’m not in my mature phase yet. I see the foundations of my work and their development, but I hope they continue to ripen and mature and change as long as I put thought and effort into them.

JG: OKay, Chris. It was been a pleasure and privilege to work with you.

CG: You’re quite welcome, Jack. This has been an amazing process for me and I appreciate again all the time and thought you’ve put into my work.

liuChris Gordon is the editor of ant ant ant ant ant, a journal of contemporary haiku. He is a poet, mixed-media artist, and mental health advocate living in Eugene, Oregon. His work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Antioch Review, Fence, Northwest Review, Roadrunner, and Sentence. Hiroaki Sato has translated his haiku into Japanese on two occasions (Erotic Haiku and A Guide to Haiku for the 21st Century). His haiku will appear in Modern Haiku Press’ upcoming anthology of 21st century haiku.

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