I Gave my Heart to Poetry When I was Young and Vowed to Give It My All: An Interview with Antler
by Charles Rossiter
CR: You've been a poet since at least the 1970s—as long as I've known you. What does poetry mean to you—and do for you?
Antler: Actually I started writing rhyme and meter poetry in junior high school, sparked by the English Romantics and early American poets before I encountered Whitman and free verse. My inspiration was unrequited love causing me to flirt with death and suicide. Reading and writing poetry saved my life before I met my true love in my late teens—poet Jeff Poniewaz. We’ve been pals now for 47 years.
For me poetry is a spiritual path as much as any major faith tradition of the last 3000 years and predates those, going back 60,000 years to when the Neanderthal buried their dead with flower offerings in Shanidar, Iraq. And before that to the Source of All. I like the idea that cosmic consciousness shines through many lamps, not just one—Jesus. So it flows through Krishna, Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, etc. It also shines through the hearts and minds and souls of those open to it. So, for example, poets like Whitman or Mary Oliver have divine light flowing through. Walt Whitman wrote: “Dazzling and tremendous how quickly the sunrise would kill me if I could not now and always send sunrise out of me.”
CR: So you found poetry early?
Antler: I gave my heart to poetry when I was young and vowed to give it my all. I tried to maximize free time to read great poetry aloud and to make myself open to it flowing through. I was especially open to poems coming to me that broke new ground, capturing what hadn’t been captured before and honoring our human mortal forms and desires before the curtain drops. Poetry means healing energy flowing into me and for the Tribe—just like music, just like art. I never met anyone who didn’t like music but met a lot who hated poetry. What’s happening now is an ever-increasing realization of the power and grace of poetry worldwide and an ever-increasing number choosing to follow the poet path no matter what. It is a hopeful gesture to the future, one that makes it seem a future is possible. Vivekananda wrote—“Thinking you’re sick all the time won’t cure you.” Poetry can help us go beyond illness, physical and mental, to a space of transcendence.
CR: What motivates you to write poetry?
Antler: Love. Death. Nature. Human kindness and inhuman cruelty. Unjust war. Ruthless capitalism and genocide, ecocide, suicide. Wilderness Epiphanies in expanded mind-state. The Milky Way. The mystery and poignancy of our reproductive organs. The arc of life from conception to death and the transformation of corpses into fresh new life. The web of life in all its particulars. Fascination with other creatures. How we go from a zygote to a 26-trillion-celled baby being born to a 10-quadrillion-celled adult to a vanished being.
CR: Allen Ginsberg had high praise for your book Factory. Can you tell me about how you know him and any influence he may have had on your work?
Antler: I first learned about Ginsberg from Jeff when we were teenagers. He urged me to check out Howl and I went to the library and asked if they had How Well—that’s what I thought he said! When Allen first read in Milwaukee in February 1967, we came from Madison, where we were students at the time, to hear him. It was a life-changing experience. When he read in Madison a couple months later, he ended up staying overnight in our place where Jeff played him the last movement of Mahler’s 3rd and we watched him while he slept. While in San Francisco in the summer of ’71 we again heard him read. Jeff urged shy me to give Allen some of my poems as he was leaving after that reading, and when he read again in Milwaukee later that fall he was glad to see me and said he liked my poems a lot. When I felt I had enough poems for a book manuscript, I sent it to him. That was the mid-‘70s and it was my Last Words book. Turns out he loved it and began urging Ferlinghetti to publish it via City Lights. Allen and his camerado Peter Orlovsky visited me and Jeff in Milwaukee on their way back to New York from a Buddhist retreat in northern Wisconsin. Allen went through my Last Words MS with me line-by-line while Jeff and Peter looked on. Between his enthusiasm and Ferlinghetti’s, who also liked my stuff, Factory was published by City Lights in 1980. Over the years I got to hang out with Allen quite a few times and read with him in San Francisco, Chicago, New York City, Boulder and in Rome at the 2nd International Festival of the Poet. When I suffered a double inguinal hernia while working as a housepainter in San Francisco, he let me recover after my operation for several months alone in his Sierra Foothills cabin that he and Peter built near Gary Snyder’s homestead Kitkitdizze. It was great to have Allen as an actual friend. Before he died, Jeff and I were among the friends he called to let know he didn’t have long to live. For me he will always be still alive.
CR: Did knowing Allen advance your work?
Antler: His main influence on me was as “courage teacher” (what he called Whitman) inspiring me to express my inner self without fear in total openness. I felt free to celebrate, honor and bless my innermost gay feelings, my anti-war convictions, my fervent Nature love and environmentalism, my sacramental use of marijuana, my wanting to free the human tribe from urban-industrial wage-slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation took place, but it didn’t go far enough. Like Whitman, Allen encouraged candor. I was no longer afraid. The more I expressed my heart, the freer and wilder I became and I loved feeling that as a young fellow, and so did Jeff. Wild stallions with long hair running in the moonlight. What else is poetry for? Look what it can really do and say!
So part of it was going forth with my pal as young poets to fulfill our promise, no matter what. Although I didn’t become a Buddhist like Allen, I do respect that spiritual path. But the tree Buddha sat under and achieved enlightenment didn’t need to sit under Buddha to achieve enlightenment. That’s why I went to the trees and the poet-tree. I couldn’t believe in a Christianity that maintained if you played with yourself as a boy it made Christ hurt more on the cross. Or that Jesus would be upset that when I was 8 years old I pretended my erection in the bathtub was an iceberg that my toy Titanic struck and sank. Yet I still remained open to the benevolent and compassionate aspects of humancentric spiritual traditions. I loved rhapsodic chant perorations of free verse like those of Ginsberg and Whitman and sensed that that was the lineage I was part of. I believed the poet tribe could help save the world. Allen’s strong eco-awareness spurred me to widen mine. “Earth pollution identical to mind pollution,” he wrote. The secret was to heal and transform the mind. Allen gave birth to many poets around the world. I am thankful to be one of them. He showed how you could heal the nation with poetry and heal yourself with it as well. American poetry is one of the benevolent and tender gifts to the world from America—not nerve gas, nuclear bombs, assault weapons, oil spills, global warming and fundamentalism.
CR: What about Gary Snyder?
Antler: Snyder is one of my other all-time inspirers. I was drawn to his Wilderness know-how and sheer aura. It was special to be with Gary and Allen together around a campfire under the stars and ponderosa pines in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Being in Snyder’s presence was like being in a wilderness in human form. I memorized something Snyder said in Earth House Hold so I’d never forget it—“The nub of the problem now is how to flip over the magnificent growth energy of modern industrial civilization toward a deeper sense of self in nature, and this continuing revolution of consciousness will be won not by guns or bombs, but by seizing the key images, myths, archetypes, ecstasies and eschatologies so that life won’t seem worth living unless you’re on the transforming energy’s side.”
CR: In your poetry you wonder many things such as what we might have experienced before we were born and what it might be like after we're dead. Could you tell me something about yourself as a poet of wonder?
Antler: Wonder is the word. Rachel Carson knew how important it is, and wrote a book titled A Sense of Wonder. Not a Sense of Plunder or a Sense of Blunder or a Sense of Squander. Wonder is as much a sense as a sense of smell, taste, sight, hearing, touch and balance and involves all of them. In Bellini’s painting St. Francis in Ecstasy, painted the same year Columbus set sail for the New World, St. Francis is seen emerging from his hermit cave turning away from the closed Bible on his desk resting next to a human skull. As he extends his arms to the trees and birds and animals as the sunrise engulfs the landscape before him, he stands in awe of the Creation. He’s enraptured in awe and wonder. That’s why that image came to me at the ending of my 9/11 poem: after all the horror, this centuries-old painting reminds us of the visionary moment of rapport with Nature. Viewing this painting, we too emerge from our hermit cave to behold the birth of a new day in Eternity. “Every day is in Eternity,” wrote Ginsberg in “Footnote to Howl” and he was right!
CR: You retreat to the woods for a period each year. How is that solitude important for you and your poetry?
Antler: Until recently when I became caregiver for my Mother so she could die at home and not have to go to a nursing home and also became caregiver for Jeff when he came down with cancer, for 35 years I went into Wildernesses alone in spring and fall for 30 to 40 to 60 days (once 100 days) hiking or canoeing miles from any trailhead and having wild lakes to myself in the Quetico-Superior or northern California mountain splendors of solitude peaks and vistas, or Upper Peninsula Michigan deep old growth eastern hemlock sugar maple forest valleys with primordial creeks and ancient overlooks off the trail where I would see no one. Going off the trail was my destination. I felt as if I were the only person left on Earth.
CR: Tell me more about the importance of being alone.
Antler: Alone with the Alone. I spent more time alone in the Wilderness than I did in my Mother’s womb. I became obsessed with the solitude wilderness vision quest experience more than seeking visionary human lovers or fame. Although I had many close calls—bears stole my food, stole my packs, ripped up my tents, confronted me standing approaching me, 6-foot snows and weeklong downpours, being lost, hypothermia, sunstroke, heatstroke, hundreds of infuriated yellow-jacket wasps engulfing me stinging me, giardia, falling through ice, hurting myself so I couldn’t walk—but it was worth it. It was always hard to return to civilization. Something in me never returned and is running around on all fours in the dark right now. Nancy Newhall said “Wilderness has answers to questions we don’t even know how to ask yet.” Sometimes silence was the answer, sometimes waterfalls, sometimes meteor showers, sometimes wind, sometimes a Jack-in-the-Pulpit, sometimes an eagle flying close eyeing me with its yellow eyes, sometimes a perfect double rainbow. At times I became a nocturnal being and spent many nights under the stars. Commodore Fanning in Planets, Stars and Galaxies wrote that when you learn a constellation you make a friend for life. Human friends come and go, but the Orion you learned as a child will be there for you when you’re an old man. That’s why [poet Kenneth] Rexroth said:“Believe in Orion.” Like John Muir, I left the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness.
CR: You obviously get a great deal out of being in nature.
Antler: Most of all for me it was the healing energy I felt living a primitive life, the physical challenge and joy, the connection with the timeless Source that preceded the human drama and trauma, the vow to fulfill the promise of boyhood till death do me part or till immortality do me never part. Thoreau was and is as much an inspiration to me as Whitman was: “I went to the woods to see if I could not learn what life had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
CR: Do you do anything specific beyond spending solitary time in the wilderness to cultivate your self and your consciousness?
Antler: Outside my time alone in Nature or working on poetry, my main focus is caregiving—for my pal Jeff and also for a woman friend who has a disability. I’ve been assisting her for 25 years—helping with shopping, cooking, cleaning, meds, appointments, counseling, etc. Since Jeff’s health crisis began in late 2005 I’ve done the same for him, including taking over his classes during his first couple surgeries and recovery times after he was first diagnosed and then co-teaching with him for a couple semesters. I must admit that was caregiving for me as well as for Jeff, because I enjoy teaching and we had a lot of fun doing it together, and so did the students. Caregiving involves a major part of each day. As I mentioned, I also did this for my mother during her final years.
CR: Beyond the caregiving, how else do you spend your time?
Antler: I do a lot of reading and reciting poems aloud, also play Scarlatti, Debussy, Ravel, Beethoven, Chopin, Grieg, Scriabin on a piano Jeff won for me when Liberace picked his name out of a barrel (that actually happened, Jeff has a funny poem about it). I'm secretary of the housing co-op we live in, taking minutes at our meetings. Also, involved in eco-activism with Jeff helping preserve natural greenway along the Milwaukee River where we live. Take part in poetry community here—have been a part of the Milwaukee poetry scene since the late ‘60s. I'm a long-time supporter of Woodland Pattern Literary Center and Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. Jeff and I were the featured keynote poets at WFOP’s November 2012 annual fall gathering, this one’s theme being “Rethinking Nature Poetry.”
CR: I know you're also busy outside of Milwaukee and Wisconsin.
Antler: Yes, I've done recent readings at Sarah Lawrence, Texas A&M, also with Robert Bly in Minneapolis as part of the Poetry Society of America’s 100th anniversary celebration. Gave presentations with Jeff of poems by Whitman, Thoreau, Jeffers, John Muir, eco/nature poetry by many poets. Had brief teaching stints at Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Esalen Institute, Omega Institute, and The Clearing. I also conduct workshops at a high school creative writing festival that’s held each November on the UW-Whitewater campus. For many years I’ve made a living from grasscutting, snowshoveling, factorywork, housepainting. In a zen sort of way everything I do cultivates my consciousness and feeds my poems.
CR: Thanks so much for taking time for this interview. It's good to learn more about you and what's behind your poetry.
Antler: Thanks, Charlie. I'm happy to do it.
An earlier, briefer version of this interview appeared in the National Association for Poetry Therapy association newsletter.