RAVEN MACK is a mystic poet-philosopher-artist of the Greater Appalachian unorthodox tradition. He does have an amazing PATREON, but also *normal* ARTIST WEBSITE too.

Friday, August 21

Shakespeare Greenheart & Nasreddin Shifflett double book release interview!

Shakespeare Greenheart & Nasreddin Shifflett books now available:
signed copies direct from me at Workingman Books
e-book versions for all devices at Smashwords
and both print and e-book versions at Amazon

Raven Mack just released two books of poetry – Shakespeare Greenheart, and Nasreddin Shifflett – the first two in a series of four containing what he calls “freestyle sonnets”. He also recently put out a musical project with a young producer called C.S.X.T.C.. Additionally, he is part of me, or I am part of him, or one way or the other we occupy the same physical space although our individual motivations are very different.
Raven Mack still believes in the meritocracy. In our lengthy private discussions, I’ve tried to dissuade him from this naiveté, and encouraged him to cultivate a detachment from any possible fruits to his creative endeavors, not really so much as a jaded perspective but for his own self-preservation. Because that’s not how the world works, at least not that simply. One of the trademarks of human nature – one that seems different than the rest of nature – is to overly complicate things, and to underestimate the strength of simple but complex.
Anyways, with the arrival of these two new books of sonnets, I sat down with Raven Mack to interview him about Shakespeare Greenheart and Nasreddin Shifflett, as well as his other creative works, mostly as a partially patronizing act, but also because I feel sorry for him, for still believing in things that aren’t real.
- The Dirt-God

Dirt-God: So Shakespeare Greenheart and Nasreddin Shifflett are the first two books in this freestyle sonnet series. What’s the series all about, and what are “freestyle sonnets”?
Raven Mack: I started writing sonnets a couple years back on the spot, like sit down and whip one out without thinking too hard about it, much like freestyle rapping in the sense you were minimizing conscious mind that planned shit out and letting sub-conscious or unconscious or combination of both or all three or whatever the fuck it is that decides to speak in the immediate moment speak first and final. I got to where I was doing them in ten minutes, asking people for subjects, just whipping them out. So I started thinking about doing crowns of sonnets, which is where last line of one becomes first line of the next, and you can just run with that, or actually have the last line of last sonnet be the same as the first line of the first sonnet, to create a circle. Old school dudes used to do coronas of sonnets, which would be a hundred just like that. But you could also do a heroic crown which was when you’d have fourteen sonnets connect in that circle, but also the last line of each of the fourteen sonnets composed a fifteenth heroic crown sonnet. Being I’m ruled by math dork nonsense inside my own head, like counting steps, repeating numerical patterns, total secret to-my-self O.C.D. shit like that, it felt like a good idea to do thiat, and make it a project, to force over-indulging, which also tends to be a thing that rules me. At first I was gonna do 69 heroic crowns, because 69 is kinda my lucky number, but as I started doing them, for whatever reason, it made more sense to do 76, so that they made four quarters of 19.

DG: So how do you write them? Where do you write them? What has been your process for conducting this project?
RM: Well, I tend to have multiple heroic crowns going on at once, compartmentalizing them by notebook or computer device. Like I always have an ongoing one on my work desktop, and a couple different handwritten notebooks as well. I had a notebook a friend gave me with a raven in the boots on the cover which I only used in the gardens on both sides of the lawn at UVA during my lunch break, and I’d shoot for two or three per lunch break, but if I did one and that felt like it, I’d stop. I filled that notebook up, and most of the ones in there are in these two collections. I have a notebook that’s only for being in the woods at home, a tiny composition books like one of those mini-ones that I can only write in all caps in, all types of dumb rules I make so that I can have four or five different ones going on at once. Currently, the most work I’m doing is in a composition book where I’m working from both ends on separate heroic crowns, and I’ve been shooting for three for that every day at lunch, in about thirty minutes, plus writing one to three more on my desktop at work in free moments stolen back from workday, plus assorted other ones here or there, probably averaging about three a day. Also a friend has been filming one of the current ones, so I wait to write the sonnet while we’re filming, one a week, until we make a crown there. We’re four weeks into that one. They take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes each, the more I’m dialed in and doing it regularly throughout the day, the quicker they go.

DG: You realize that’s kinda fucked up, right? Like, that’s not normal at all.
RM: Haha, yeah, totally. I think that’s the hard part too, now that I’ve actually finished producing two books of them, is that it’s hard for people to really understand what’s going on with them. The reason they came out two at a time is because I actually had submitted the first book – the Shakespeare Greenheart one – to Copper Canyon Press in their open submission period, and it sat for a long ass time. Like I expected immediate rejection, in that first month like they say they let most everybody know, but it never came. Then it went two, three, four months, and I started to think, “Oh shit, they might actually publish my crazy shit.” But they didn’t. I was already pretty much done with the second quarter of the project though so I figured I might as well put them out as a pair.

DG: Why did you submit them in the first place? Copper Canyon’s one of the premier poetry presses there is, poet laureate material. You don’t seem to be even trying to get individual poems published in journals and the like, which is normal way to do such things. Why did you think there’d be success in the jump to actually having a book with no other published works?
RM: I figured all they could do is say no, and ultimately that’s all they did. I don’t really subscribe to the whole sending-poems-off-to-literary-journals method, which sounds egotistic as fuck, like I’m too good for that, but it’s not really that. I applied a few years back to the MFA program at UVA, both fiction and poetry, but didn’t get into either. I was told I almost got into the fiction program, like I was one of the last eliminations, but a certain faculty member there felt like I might do better through a more creative back door entry into the program, or I might audit a class or two and realize MFA route was not for me at all. He was right. That shit would’ve crushed me. That traditional route, which we’re still encouraged to respect as the way a writer gains success, has very particular tricks to that trade that you learn. There’s a certain amount of self-perpetuation that goes on, and you learn to take part in that. You become hazed into the elite fraternal organization of American poetry basically. I’m not really into that. And honestly, I feel like a dick submitting a poem for publication to anything that I wouldn’t read myself. And I wouldn’t read most of those literary journals that would be the ones I’d have to submit myself to.

DG: You realize all of that does sound exactly like you think you’re too good for it, right?
RM: Yeah, I guess. But I don’t feel too good for it, I just feel different than it. A lot of respected poetry and fiction and respected writers, they all feel the same to me. It feels like a thousand variations on the same shit. I’d rather not be that, which of course means, I’m outside of that, and it is exactly being that that encourages success in terms of being accepted as what a poet or writer means to everybody else. You either play the game as it is demanded you play it, or you’re not gonna win. It’s that simple.

DG: So you self-publish?
RM: Yeah. Self-publish books, self-publish zines, which is a culture I grew up with, just printing it yourself. Nobody writing about what you care about? Fuck it, write it yourself. But even with zines there was this sort of Zine Illuminati of zine figureheads that all got book deals and everybody knew and had their zines in national bookstores and shit like that somehow. I never understand how that happens. Same with self-publishing these books, I don’t understand how to make people know it exists.

DG: You mean “marketing” the books?
RM: Well yeah, I guess, but not really. I just want people to know they’re there, and exist. I feel like what I’m doing has validity, and deserves to be seen, but you know how you have people who say publishing has “gatekeepers” who decide who gets in and out? Even beyond that, it feels like there’s this giant wall that is an enclave of all that is accepted and respected, and I can’t even see over that wall. There’s this endless drone of noise going on, worse so now with the internet’s constant hum into our lives, and I’m yelling over the wall to get people inside that enclave to notice what I’m doing.

DG: But they don’t.
RM: No, they don’t. And even then, I realize what I’m doing is not really a part of being inside that enclave, like the shit I’m writing is for the misfits and malcontents and wretched of the earth, not those inside the in-crowd. But even among the misfits and malcontents, they tend to look inside those walls for what they get into, because goddamn the noise is so fucking loud from in there, it’s hard not to look at it for everything.

DG: How do you get around that?
RM: I got no clue. I’m talking to myself, literally talking to myself, every fucking day trying to figure it out. And you see self-publishers do these corny ass “why I became a writer” things or hyping up projects that don’t seem all that hype. Or you get these internet celeb writers who start to have sort of an internet clever cult, where they say all these WACKY things that are so CLEVER because they’re not really being weird, they’re just pretending to be weird, so by pretending to be weird but still being functional human beings, they can be successful and not actually threaten anyone’s safety. And I just don’t get it. The shit is actually really confusing to me. So I don’t know how to get around it.

DG: In our previous conversations, I’ve mentioned to you many times about just doing the work, not worrying about what comes of it, accumulate the pieces and keep piling them up like rocks. Nobody may ever acknowledge the pile of rocks you’ve built up, and some folks may see it and really love that pile of rocks, but the majority will probably never wander across that pile of rocks you built up in the middle of nowhere, outside of I guess that wall you’re envisioning. Has that affected you at all? Has it changed the way you work at these projects?
RM: Well, it hasn’t changed how I work at the projects because I’m mostly always answering to myself then anyways. I guess it’s started to make it easier for me to let go once I’m done, and have a finished project to share with the random ass anonymous public that exists as this mythological entity with all sorts of discretionary income to spend, so that once I finish these two books and they are physically available for people, or I finish this music project I did with this guy Finn, I can shout into the droning void of social media, “HEY, I DID THIS NEW THING!” for a couple days, and then let it go. But it still bothers me. I mean if you’re doing these things, and you think it’s amazing, you want people to check it out.

DG: You ever think about the fact maybe it’s not that amazing?
RM: Yeah. I mean you see people who do shit themselves, and it’s horrible. I could name a few, but then again a few could probably name me, too. Look, when I say what I’m doing is amazing, that doesn’t mean I think I’m some sort of genius or some shit like that. Honestly, I feel like anybody could do what I do. In the basic pit of human potential everybody has, everybody is born with, anybody could do these things. But nobody else is, that I know of. And the things that are considered great by our cultural tastemakers, even the offbeat internet ones, don’t always seem that great usually.
I was lucky enough to be involved with a program called Open Minds in the Richmond City Jail, through a friend Liz Canfield, and met the guy who ran the jail school John Dooley. I sat in on a handful of classes of these people who were in the jail program, writing, filling composition books, not because of what they were supposed to, but because they had to, and it made them better people. That experience changed my perspective, for the better. Being part of that ultimately was my MFA program, to where now I’m trying to get through the bureaucratic hurdles to facilitate a similar writing program local to myself. It hasn’t happened yet, and fuck, after almost a year of emailing motherfuckers about it every month, I don’t know that it ever will. But I’d like it to. That writing from people society deemed unfit for freedom, was realer than any of the shit I heard in other classes. It was realer than any of the soft-spoken tired but acceptable metaphorical spiel I heard at poetry readings.
So what makes one person a successful MFA candidate, and another person somebody scribbling raps into a composition book in jail? Luck. Chance. Where you were born basically, and the connections both to other people as well as environment that your birth gives you. It shook the meritocracy notion for me.

DG: And yet, here we are, me interviewing you, which is essentially talking to yourself, to attempt to circumvent around to the inside of that wall, to that meritocracy still. Why?
RM: Haha, I have no fuckin’ clue. I love what I do. I love the poetry, I love the stories and essays I put in my Rojonekku Word Fighting Arts zines, I love the music I’m doing now, which I hadn’t done in a couple years, but I’ve got two or three different music projects going now too. It all doesn’t really feel like choice. I’d be a very unhappy, depressed, and likely suicidal person if I wasn’t doing it all.

DG: Shouldn’t that be enough? Why the fuck does it matter if strangers know it exists?
RM: Yeah. I don’t know. Like I said, I don’t read literary journals or shit like that. I mostly read old poets, used to always be hermit Chinese poets but the past couple years I’ve been studying the old Islamic mystic poets and philosophers a lot more. They tended to be that way too, to where they were doing all sorts of shit constantly, but there seemed to be an appreciation that was available to them, although I guess that’s filtered through the perspective of time. They might not have had that during their lifetime.

DG: So what’s next? You’ve released these two books, what do you do now?
RM: I’m just about done with the third set, just finished my 50th heroic crown last week actually. Once I get to 57, that’ll be the third book, then 76 to finish the whole project. I’m contemplating another sonnet-specific project after that, then shutting down from sonnets probably. I’m hoping to do some readings for these two books various places, try to sell books out the back of my truck like old school rappers selling mixtapes.

DG: At independent bookstores?
RM: Hahaha, no, not even. Independent bookstores are still very much inside those walls I was talking about earlier. I’m on the outside, so I figured might as well embrace that. I’m talking about doing readings by the river, selling books on the spot, catching a Greyhound to Pittsburgh or Cleveland or east Tennessee or really wherever somebody might give me a couch to sleep on that night before catching a bus home the next morning, to just read my shit out in the open, for whoever’s apt to come to those things, or fuck it, just for the trees if that’s all that’s there. People tend to suck anyways. Whenever the tree-to-person ratio gets below like a 5.0, it starts to get frustrating. But trees don’t buy books, and in fact my books are printed on tree flesh, which is really fucked up now that I think about it. I guess that goes back to our human nature complicating things.

DG: Well, good luck Raven Mack.
RM: Thank you, Dirt-god.

Raven Mack can be reached through this site you are already looking at. If you'd like Raven Mack to come talk shit somewhere convenient to you, hit him up. Meaning me.


Andrew TSKS said...

"You realize that’s kinda fucked up, right? Like, that’s not normal at all."

I laughed LOUD at this. So perfect.

Anonymous said...

This was awesome.