Catfish McDaris’s most infamous chapbook is Prying, with Jack Micheline and Charles Bukowski. His best readings were in Paris at the Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore and with Jimmy ‘the ghost of Hendrix’ Spencer in NYC on 42nd St. He’s done over 20 chaps in the last 25 years. He’s been published by New York Quarterly, Slipstream, Pearl, Main St. Rag, Café Review, Chiron Review, Zen Tattoo, Wormwood Review, Great Weather For Media, Silver Birch Press, and Graffiti Kolkata. He’s been nominated for 15 Pushcarts, the Best of Net in 2010 and 2013, he won the Uprising Award in 1999 and won the Flash Fiction Contest judged by the US Poet Laureate in 2009. He’s recently been translated into French, Polish, Swedish, Arabic, Bengali, Tagalog, and Esperanto. His 25 years of published material is in the Special Archives Collection at Marquette Univ. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has also recently been published in New Coin, South Africa. His latest collection is Thieves of the Wind, with Kolkata poet and publisher Subhankar Das.
DH: Perhaps an obvious first question revolves around your first name – Catfish. For me it conjures up images of the Mississippi, of delta blues and Mark Twain characters – so, how did you get the name Catfish?
CM: Dave (Low Dog) Reeve, editor of Zen Tattoo took some of my poems, I told him I’d like to quit working for the Post Office in Milwaukee and start a catfish farm. He knew Bukowski slightly. This was about 94 and the name stuck. My sincere study of aquatic farming became just another unfulfilled dream. I started writing protest letters to newspapers, then I wrote a western novel (unpublished). I went to a poetry read and thought why not. I had lots of crazy fun reading and getting printed and meeting new people.
You have published quite a few titles, over 20, mainly chapbooks rather than full collections. I prefer chapbooks of poetry over thick volumes, there is a sense of intimacy or even of immediacy to a chapbook than a full collection doesn’t have. Did you go the chapbook route by choice?
I’m not exactly sure how many chapbooks I’ve done. I’ve always mixed poems with fiction, to me it’s all about storytelling. I have no academic credentials to get some big publishing house to print me. If Black Sparrow or City Lights would’ve come along and said let’s do it, I would have. On the other hand I’ve never self-published my own work. I figure if you can’t find a small press publisher, then your work must suck. I wouldn’t even venture a guess at how many small press publishers exist in US because they start and fold so quickly. There are university presses mostly from their English Dept. If you have no talent you won’t make it no matter where you live. With the web everything is international and in the blink of an eye.
You had a chapbook published with Bukowski and Jack Micheline, called Prying. Bukowski is clearly an influence on your work – did you ever meet him? Did you ever meet Micheline?
I never met Bukowski, I’m sort of glad I didn’t. I consider him and Micheline geniuses, but I’ve seen films where Buk was mean to women and that behaviour pisses me off. I never met Jack either, except we became great pen-pals. I bought some of his paintings and chapbooks. He sent me poems of his and 4 unpublished poems from Buk from 74. Jack told me to write some nasty stories and find a publisher. That’s how Prying was born. Buk was dead by then and Mich died soon after.
I first encountered your name when you interviewed the poet Charles Plymell. Plymell is usually associated with the Beats but he doesn’t like being given that label and is quite critical of the Beats. There has been a bit of a Beat industry on the go – a Kerouac industry, a Burroughs industry, a Ginsberg industry. Would I be right in saying there is also a Bukowski industry? What are your feelings about these industries?
I met Plymell through being published together in the small press scene. The extensive interview I did with him was for the Chiron Review, it sort of opened my door to the Beatniks. Plymell stayed with us in Milwaukee in 96 on his way to meet Ginsberg and Burroughs. He introduced me to them through the mail and I got signed books from them. Two years later, in 98, I went to a 3-day Beatnik read in Cherry Valley, NY where Plymell lives and Ginsberg had a farm. I read with Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, Ray Bremser, Janine Pommy Vega, Andy Clausen, David Amram, David Church, Claude Pelieu, Charles Plymell, Gordon Ball, and lots of other Beatniks and musicians such as Grant Hart. I think the Bukowski industry may overshadow all the Beatniks put together, but who really knows. The Beatniks and Bukowski are being overexposed. I prefer Buk over Kerouac any day. We need to create the next big move; we have the talent and technology. We don’t have to go on the road or live in a cardboard box, unless we feel like it. Caves are great; I spent almost three months in one.
There is another label being used – outlaw poet. Do you consider yourself an outlaw poet? Do we need labels?
I don’t think we need labels, but I think we will never get around them. I have broken many laws in my 60 years. I’ve been in jail, never prison. If being an outlaw poet means you can write about things outside the law, then hell yea I’m an outlaw. I wasn’t in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry unfortunately. That was fat anthology from 1999 put out by Thunder’s Mouth Press, dedicated to Jack Micheline. I was told to send work to it by Tommy Tucker from Bum Rush in NY in 98, I forgot. Alan Kaufman edited it with SA Griffin, it has all the outlaws except Bukowski. I have been to Billy the Kid’s grave, though. Since I grew up in Clovis, New Mexico, that wasn’t far from Billy the Kid country. He supposedly killed 21 men before he was 21. Billy is buried in Fort Sumner, New Mexico where they kept Geronimo prisoner. Watch Sam Peckinpah’s movie Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Bob Dylan is in it, he’s a knife-throwing expert and he does the soundtrack, notably Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
Apart from poetry you also write flash fiction. When did you start writing flash fiction and why? Is flash fiction not in some ways a variation/extension of the prose poem?
It is all a story or a tale. Some mags want flash fiction some want poetry. It’s the same animal to me.
What music do you like?
I like Hendrix, Prince, Satriani, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Santana. I listen to lots of Mexican and French music from my lady. The funny thing is I don’t hardly ever listen to music while I’m alone or writing.
You live in Milwaukee – that’s a city I have always associated with the TV sitcom Happy Days. What is the poetry and arts scene like in Milwaukee?
There are lots of breweries here. After the big Chicago fire, 1871, all the beer barons moved to Milwaukee because of Lake Michigan and fresh river water. We have a bronze Fonz statue, every few years the Happy Days folks come here. There are lots of good poets here. Antler and lots of academic poets, there are lots of reading venues. Also slams and rap contests. The art scene is super, lots of bohemians and a world-class art museum. Chicago is 90 minutes away and it is a great art and poetry city. In Milwaukee our art museum is right on Lake Michigan, It was designed by a Spaniard and opens its wings like the one in Sydney, Australia. I prefer paintings, but there are sculptures by Rodin. I like Bonnard, Caillebotte, Kandinsky, Klee, Miro, Monet, O’Keeffe, and Renoir - just to name a few in the permanent collection. Some of the local artists are great, there are many galleries and exhibits. I love Frida Kahlo, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Seurat, I also like Robert De Niro Sr.
Sales are terrible for poetry. People would rather buy a beer or tasteless hamburger than a chapbook. The market is so flooded (not just in the US, but worldwide) the old 'you buy mine, I’ll buy yours' is murder. I just mailed a chapbook to Quebec and it was almost $9.00 postage. I don’t understand print on demand, how can a publishing company give you a free ISBN (they usually cost $50) and print a perfect-bound or even hard-bound book and then put them for sale online and you just buy a few, or however many you feel like? I haven’t self-published any of my stuff, but friends with more computer knowledge than me have. This is crazy. I am old school, we used to send our work out with SASEs and wait by the mailbox with crossed fingers. Now you meet people all over the world in the blink of an eye. Maybe the Kindle will abolish printed books. I hope I don’t live to see that.
You started up a blog-based journal, ppigpenn, which contains mainly interviews and poetry. I think it is important that poets start up these initiatives, to create a creator awareness of what is happening in poetry, whether locally or internationally. What are your thoughts on this?
In some ways I think it’s cool to connect with so many people all over the world. On the other hand what makes me so special that I should be able to judge other writers’ work and decide if they are worthy to be published on ppigpenn. I try never to reject anyone, I may ask them to hit me with something harder, but I turn no one away. I’m lucky now that I have a partner watching my back, Michy McDannold from the Literary Underground.
You have just published a joint volume of poetry with Kolkata poet and publisher Subhankar Das, called Thieves of the Wind. A couple of years back you published another collaborative volume, with the Australian poet Ben John Smith, called Dancing Naked on Bukowski’s Grave. There was also the earlier collaborative volume with Bukowski and Micheline. Some publishers here in SA have done collective volumes of poetry – say, four or six poets in one volume – rather than single collections. What is the advantage of collaborative works, other than the sharing of resources?
I consider Subhankar and Ben John top-notch writers from a totally different background and country. With the dismal sales in the small press world maybe having a brother along might help. Being printed with Bukowski and Micheline never hurt, but it sure never put a dime in my pocket. If you have to depend on writing for a living, I suggest go the Outlaw Poetry route. Rob a few banks now and then.