Thursday Apr 18

Vincenz-Poetry Marc Vincenz is Swiss-British and was born in Hong Kong. His recent books include Upholding Half the Sky (MiPOesias, 2010), The Propaganda Factory, or Speaking of Trees (Argotist, 2011). His translation of Swiss poet Erika Burkart’s Secret Letter is forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press; and in collaboration with the Icelandic artist Inga Maria Brynjarsdottir, a children’s book in verse, Animals of the Northern Lights. He currently lives in Iceland where he works as a journalist, poet, translator, and book designer. Recent and forthcoming publications include The Potomac, Spillway, Poetry Salzburg Review, Atticus Review, Inertia and Pirene’s Fountain. Marc is Managing Editor of MadHat Press, Poetry and Non-Fiction Editor at Mad Hatters’ Review and on the editorial board of Open Letter’s Monthly. In 2011, his poetry was nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize.
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Marc Vincenz Interview, with JP Reese
 
 
Marc, a portion of your interesting Bio. states, "Born in Hong Kong during the height of the Cultural Revolution, MARC VINCENZ has spent much of his life on the road. He has lived in England, Switzerland, Spain, Hong Kong, China, the United States, and has traveled far and wide to such remote locations such as central Siberia, the Amazon Rainforest, Tibet, India’s Thar Desert, and China’s Kun Lun Mountains." You are truly a world wanderer. My question is, and I know it's not an easy one to answer, what is your favorite city or country of all those you've ever lived in or traveled to, and why?
 
The truth is, as a child growing up in so many contradicting places and cultures was not easy. My father was a mostly-successful entrepreneur, who was continually building on his global network, his empire. When he decided we’d move from Hong Kong to London or Hong Kong to New York City, we, my mother, my sister and I, had very little say in the matter. We were just along for the ride.
 
In a way, my sister and I learned to become chameleons. When I was a five years old I spoke fluent Cantonese with the local kids at Stanley Market—near where we lived in Hong Kong—all the way down to the local dialectical nuances. Forty years later, except for some of the swear words, I’ve almost forgotten it. Later, the 'gypsy effect' became engrained in my blood. Today, I start to get stir-crazy if I’m not experiencing at least one new locale a year.
 
Being continually uprooted is difficult (I would imagine) for any child, but it did give my sister and me a lateral view of the world that I wouldn’t trade for anything. My favorite city or country? Difficult. There isn’t any single place that I honestly prefer over another. Each has its merits and pitfalls. Sometimes, though, it takes a while to find them. Places that are close to my heart are Japan around Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka; rural Iceland; the countryside of Szechwan in China; certain swathes of India, and New England, USA in the Fall.
 
 
…and yet you've now chosen Iceland as the base of your operations. You left a booming career, albeit an increasingly dangerous one as you describe in the sections of your memoirs published in The Nervous Breakdown, and settled in a place most Americans, at least, would consider off the map and at the edge of the world. When it seems as though you had the resources to live practically anywhere, why Iceland?
 
Well, I’ve been coming to Iceland since the mid 90s. Ever since I met my partner, who, by the way, is Icelandic. We’d bought a house—really a holiday home—just a few steps from her parents’ place. The idea was to spend time here over the holidays, away from China. Of course, it never worked out that way. We were always off somewhere closing deals, expanding the empire; then, suddenly, her father became gravely ill with terminal cancer. We caught a glimpse of ourselves from the outside looking in. On his deathbed his mind was crystal clear. He wouldn’t let us get away with any nonsense.
 
Virtually the moment we made the decision to move here, the economic crisis hit. Iceland as a nation was on the verge of bankruptcy. Banks were falling like dominoes; the Icelandic krona was worth nothing overnight. I guess you heard about it in the news. Three years on, the country is still struggling. This year the lines outside the shelters are longer than ever. Qualified people can’t find jobs. The politicians say things are improving, that Iceland is out of the hole, but it’s going to take decades.
 
Iceland’s been brilliant for me in many ways. There is a stillness in the air here. It’s got the right vibe for writing, for creating. And the nature. Nothing quite like it on earth.
 

I love the idea of a "... stillness in the air." It's a beautiful thought and sounds like a perfect venue for a writer. You're currently working on a verse novel,
Leaving Wolf Mountain. What inspired you to tackle your material in this rather esoteric form, what is the book about, and how far along are you?
 
I always have multiple projects ongoing at the same time. That way I can move easily into various worlds, shifting back and forth into what inspires or interests me more at any given moment. I have a quite low boredom threshold and a list of projects as long as my arm.
 
Leaving Wolf Mountain is loosely based on the imagined life of two twins I vaguely knew in Shanghai who ran a string of night clubs, street food stalls, karaoke bars, and other somewhat seedy establishments. They were both extremely beautiful, spoke impeccable English, and had a knack for spotting high-rollers the instant they strolled into their dives—or lives. In a way Ling and Yang embody everything that is alluring and sinister about modern urban China, or Russia, or Vietnam, or any other locale transitioning into modern, brand-conspicuous society. Yang has her eye on the moneyball, and mostly, manages to pull the right strings; in modern China, to be successful, you need to be able to spin many plates all at the same time: the Politbureau, the local crime lords, the police, the taxmen. Ling, Yang’s ephemeral twin, on the other hand, feels the pull back to the countryside: the cranes and the crows. It’s a continual balancing act, and inevitably the scale eventually tips to one side.
 
I began the project with various character sketches—in prose form, but kept being drawn back to verse. Characters often have the tendency to make up their own minds about how they want to sound and be seen, don’t you think?
 
I’m possibly about a third into the novel, but it’s hard to tell. It really depends what Yang has to say about it. For the moment, she’s still busy trying to save up enough to buy her first family home back in Szechwan.
 

I'm looking forward to reading
Leaving Wolf Mountain in its finished incarnation, Marc. One of the poems in this group, "Pull of the Gravitons," is pretty pessimistic, but it's also gentle and loving in its depiction of the relationship between the speaker and his friend/lover/brother in a world it paints as post-apocalyptic and dark. This section: "...He huffs, cuts/his finger on the dull knife that slips from his finger, dripping blood/on the rough timber floor. It sits there for a moment in its deep red/as if it is considering where else it might go, until it seeps in/to the old wood, tissue returning to tissue..." moved me particularly as it alludes to an almost biblical ashes to ashes sensibility. Does "graviton" refer to the hypothetical particle physicists imagine or the comic strip hero here? Are you really pessimistic about the future?
 
Yes, I am referring to the hypothetical particle as postulated within quantum field theory, an as yet undiscovered thing that supposedly doesn’t have matter that holds matter together—a kind of ironic cosmic glue. Of course, in the poem, the graviton serves as a metaphor for inevitably, but also how mysterious forces are pulling the two men closer together as they face what appear to be insurmountable difficulties. Ivan and his partner, Joseph, feature in a number of poems as part of my current collection in progress, which explores the intimate relationship of two individuals who believe they may well be alone in the world.
 
Any future is nothing more than a possible future, and I don’t propose that things will end up as it does for Ivan and Joseph, but I feel it’s important to explore the potential consequences of the times we live in. No, I wouldn’t call myself pessimistic or fatalistic. It’s the human relationships that will define the future. As to how things will turn out, what carbon emissions will represent fifty years from now, what will happen to the water supply, when oil will run out and what will replace it, who knows? There are plenty of theories.
 
Here’s one: I don’t know if you’ve seen the 2009 documentary or read the book by Charles Clover, The End of the Line, which looks at the serious threat of over fishing to the world’s largest ecosystem, the ocean—it’s a must-see/read. According to Science magazine, based on current fishing trends, by 2048, all commercial fishing stocks will have collapsed. Apparently, catches peaked in the 1980s at around 90 million tons and have been falling ever since. How will an ocean devoid of marine life effect us? I don’t know. Perhaps by that time, someone will have invented a test-tube manufactured fish meat. I know there’s a scientist somewhere who’s trying to grow cells artificially with that in mind.
 
Either way, we remain reliant on what information our media and governments feed us; many of us here in the Western world are too far away from the scene of the crime to be able to form objective opinions. For me personally, it’s vital to take whatever (I feel) I know, and act on it. Art and literature is part of that consequential act, and surely must, in its inception, be political, social, cultural—how can you avoid that when you are part of this blue ball? The good thing is that more of us than ever before, as evidenced by recent happenings on Wall Street, are aware of the problems and are speaking out.
 

Your poem, "Familiar" seems particularly apt for these times. I love the wry and startling conclusion after a seemingly normal monologue by the speaker. When did you write it and why?
 
A couple of years ago I conducted a series of interviews with mystics and spiritualists for Iceland’s English-language newspaper, the Reykjavik Grapevine. I attended séances and readings, trance and channeling sessions, and I did experience some shams, but every once in a while I glimpsed something truly extraordinary. One of the psychics, a trance-channeler, suggested that each of us has a spirit guide whether we know it or not.  Possibly three thousand years ago no one would have batted an eyelid at that proposition.
 
I’ve been interested in world religions, spirituality, and spiritualism—in particular those of indigenous peoples—since I can remember. When I was fifteen years old, after having read T. Lobsang Rampa’s The Third Eye (a wildly speculative autobiography of a mystical Tibetan lama), I plastered a big National Geographic map of Tibet on my bedroom wall. At the time, I didn’t know that T. Lobsang Rampa was actually an Englishman, Cyril Henry Hoskin (aka Doctor Carl Kuon Suo), but it didn’t really matter; from then on, I immersed myself in ancient spirituality and myth. I studied anything I could get my hands on, from the Maya to the Maori. To me it seemed incredibly important to forge some kind of connection with our primordial roots.
 
“Familiar” focuses on our disconnect with the ancient and natural world. Right now, all of us are deeply concerned about the state of the economy, if we’ll have jobs in six months, if there will be a complete collapse of the global system. Who or what might you be able to reach out to for answers, for protection? I liked the idea of the world’s largest mammal.
 
You really must see Werner Herzog’s recent documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which explores the ancient paintings in the Chauvet Caves in France. Some of the artwork is reputed to be over 32,000 years old. Particularly striking are these three exquisitely rendered horses, drawn one on top of the other, each drawing two thousand years older than the former. What were those ancients thinking? Were they drawn by shamans as familiars, protectors, as guides for the hunt, or did they represent something different to each of the artists? It really puts our daily humdrum into mega-historical perspective.
 
I wrote the poem this year over a period of two months, returning to it many times.
 

I understand the writer's urge to revise, rewrite, and return to one's work many times in order to achieve a satisfactory finish, Marc. And this, it seems, is a great point at which to finish our conversation. I appreciate your generous responses and hope everyone will enjoy your fine work as much as I do. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and work with
Connotation Press.
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The truth is, as a child growing up in so many contradicting places and cultures was not easy.