RD ARMSTRONG …..POET/PUBLISHER
I have been actually scratching my head trying to think of how best to present this one… this guest. Okay I could call him a poet but he might howl at such impertinence. I remember requesting him to send my answers back within a week and he asked me what I thought he did, twiddle all day? Okay but don’t be a Rudyard will you and he came right back saying if he was Rudyard Kipling he wouldn’t be in this business, he also called me honey. I am black so I did not blush plus I am over 60and gone past be tongue- tied or finger- tied in this case. RD Armstrong came into my world through another great poet John Yamrus. Now I simply tagged along RD wondering why he is called RD, what makes him such a special person. He is in the business of publishing, a poet himself, and he has a heart larger than his frame which he totes around publishing poets and knowing he will probably not get to be a big time publisher, but well he is darned if he is not going to give that tiny percent of the market his all.
RD Armstrong is on Center Stage, prepare to enjoy a good interview
Tell us about RainDog and Lummox press
Well, first of all, the origin of Raindog is from an album & song put out by Tom Waits back in the early 80s (I’m a big fan of Mr. Waits, who, for those unfamiliar with him, is one of the greatest American songwriters of the late 20th century). I was looking for a “handle” – a nickname – for myself back when I was a blues/folk musician back in the early 90s. When I moved to San Pedro, CA in ’92, I started going by Raindog. It’s been almost 20 years!
Eventually this evolved into RD. When I started writing stories, etc, RD Armstrong seemed more like a writer’s name than Raindog Armstrong, which just didn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as Raindog. So, RD became a second nickname. None of it is real, it’s all about reinventing oneself. People call me Mr. Dawg or Mr. Dog; Dogman, besides those other names…at least they’ve stopped calling me asshole!
As for Lummox…I was trying to come up with a suitable name for a production company (I really hadn’t planned to publish anything back then) and since I was a big lummox, I thought, why not? A lummox is a man who is big and slow, some say a dullard, but I prefer just a bit dim. One often hears the word ‘lumbering’ used in conjunction with the term. Not quite an oaf or an idiot, but more a bit slow… “special.”
Lummox Press came into existence in 1993 when I teamed up with Andrea Kowalski’s Vinegar Hill Press to produce our ode to the late Charles Bukowski, “Last Called, a Legacy of Madness” which featured the work of Andrea’s boyfriend, Jay Alamares (one of the best poets I’d ever read at the time, brilliant but destined to self-destruct), myself, T. Thrasher, Gerald Locklin and Tracy Cleantis, who was a friend of Andrea’s too. Last Call was a beautiful book, with silk-screened covers and hand stitched bindings, which Andrea did most of the work on (she was into the ‘art’ of bookmaking), while I did the editing. Years later, I would co-opt the title, when I put out Last Call: The Legacy of Charles Bukowski…one of many little books with big contents.
Perhaps, after I am dead or done with this foolishness, someone will discover the treasure trove of poetry and prose that Lummox has put out over the years.
In 1994, I self-published my first two poetry chapbooks: “Unkissed by the Angels” & “And Love is Dancing Just out of Reach” (which was a line from a song I had written years before). These were rough, homemade chaps with hand-stitched bindings. As I recall, I only printed 50 copies each. I wish I saved copies, because some of the poems in Unkissed by the Angels were lost after that and I have no copies for my records.
Since then I have published a Literary/Arts magazine called the Lummox Journal, over 100 issues between late 1995 until the end of 2006; The Little Red Book series, 60 titles since 1998; and numerous other titles in book and chapbook form. What began as a means to publish my own work back in 1994, has become a very small publishing outfit serving the needs of hundreds of poets world-wide, mostly due to the internet.
Poetry is the speech of the soul? Do you agree?
I think it can be. But as souls develop and mature so to the poetic voice. When I was a teen, my poetry was pretty bad. It continued to be bad; whinny and confessional, unfocussed and unedited, right up into the early 90s. I had actually stopped writing altogether for about ten years (another story), so when I began again, imagine my surprise when the poems were richer, deeper and more focused. I think some of my best poems were written in that period. I also believe that my “voice” had matured considerably. I think there’s a direct connection between maturity and one’s mastery of the speech of the soul, as you put it. One learns to control one’s urges, to temper one’s passions; one doesn’t necessarily have to learn poetic forms, but I believe one must learn to speak plainly and honestly about one’s passion (and I don’t mean ‘love’) without attachment.
One holy book says, “Man shall not live by bread alone”, can a poet survive on poetry?
Well I guess that depends on how you define ‘survive’…if you mean to make a living by writing poetry, I’d have to say no, in this day and age, it’s not possible. But if you mean to wander the earth writing poetry, to be a philosopher king, beholding to no man or nation, then yes, it might be possible. As long as you can dodge the bullets that seem to be flying everywhere these days. But most people want stuff and I don’t know where poetry can be traded for stuff (if you know let me know, because I’m ready to move there today)!
What is small press to the aspiring poet?
The small press is a forum by which aspiring poets, crackpots and lunatics can express themselves without too much supervision. Thanks to the Internet, any fool with a computer can voice his or her opinion about anything. I used to say, “Do not confuse information with knowledge,” but this is exactly what has happened. And the idea of fact-checking before drawing a conclusion is as antiquated as a typewriter or a rotary phone dial. People, poets included, believe what they want, whether it’s accurate or not. This entitled ignorance is fueled by the Internet, which is a gossip mill times the speed of light.
If you were president and Lummox press was a nation of poets, please tell us the state of such a nation in the literary firmament.
I’m afraid that such a nation would be very tiny and very poor.
Established traditional publishers do not seem to be particularly interested in poets, could you explain why this is so?
The great businessman/poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who founded City Lights Books & Bookstore in San Francisco), summed it up a few years back when he announced that City Lights Bookstore would no longer sell poetry because (most) poetry doesn’t sell. He was nearly run out of town for this and quickly retracted the statement, but the fact remains that for all the hue and cry, there are very few nationally recognized poets anymore. And within the small press you rarely see anyone who crosses over into the mainstream. Even poets like Bukowski or Ginsberg were never household names in this country, unlike they were in Europe.
There is a hierarchy of writers in this country, probably just like anywhere else in the world. But because America is such a big place, with so many people, the hierarchy is really daunting. The big traditional publishers get about 85% of the business. That leaves some 15% for the small presses to divvy up and of that amount, perhaps 5% is poetry. Within that 5%, I’d guess that about 1% are poets who might contact me. And of that amount, I might publish .01%.
Now, these poets I publish are really good in my opinion, but they represent such a tiny amount of the canon of American literature, that they don’t even appear as a dot on the radar screens of the big publishers. And even though their work may be crucial to American literature, they will be overlooked because, sadly, the “bottom line” is not interested in literature, unless it makes money. Like so many other things that have been ruined in America as well as around the world, greed has claimed another victim here.
Lummox in the library is a new concept to reach as many people as possible about our unsung small press hero, Todd Moore, tell us more.
Well, that’s not quite true. The idea behind this is that it’s a way to benefit the Lummox Press with monies to keep it operational (and to keep me from going hungry) AND to help spread the word of poetry from the small press into the library systems here in the US and even beyond in other countries – perhaps your country of Nigeria would benefit from a Lummox Press care package? People donate $25 to Lummox and pick a title from the catalog. Then they tell me which library to send the title to. Or I pick a title or a library or both for them. I place a sticker inside the book that says it was donated by them by name and send it off. Perhaps someone will select Todd Moore’s book someday, but so far, it has been very slow. Apparently, there is plenty of money for parties and movies and champagne but little money for libraries and small poetry publishers. So it goes.
Poets of old seemed to have been recognized and celebrated, were even regarded as souls or conscience of a nation and revered. Modern poets seem to have been relegated to back rooms of clubs with few dedicated followers, as a publisher and poet, what do you think needs to be done to reverse this trend?
A full scale revolution. Corruption is pandemic, greed drives everything and it must be rooted out and cleansed. Quite frankly, I don’t know if it is even possible, short of another world war…and you know, in cases of revolution, who are the first to die? That’s right, the intellectuals, the poets, the teachers and the artists…so even then we’ll still be screwed!
There is a new trend of poetry from the old traditions, like free verse, horror, minimalism and bone marrow poems (my definition for the poems of Todd and Rob Plath), is this likely to hold or will it fizzle from lack of support from the wider public?
Bone marrow poems? I kinda like that… though I have to say that the sensationalizing of blood & gore gets just as old as anything else. It numbs the mind and dulls the soul and desensitizes one to those moments of beauty that happen everywhere, even in the midst of a firestorm. I’m afraid that all these styles you mention and so many more yet to be named will be swallowed, co-opted, tamed and eventually sanitized by the great machines of pop-culture and commerce. And in the not so distant future, when our lives will just be part of the great soap opera designed to keep the rulers entertained, one might hear the words, “I have seen the best minds of my generation…” and have no fucking clue as to their meaning or weight.
When you call for submissions, what do you look for?
Solid, well-written work. All styles are acceptable, although I have a prejudice against so-called rhyming poetry (mostly because there are forms for rhyming and most people think the crap they learn in elementary school is correct – I’m speaking of American’s who are under forty…I don’t know how it is in Nigeria, though my guess in a lot of ways you are better educated than I am). That said, I will be publishing some marginal rhyming poetry by a local poet because the theme is about his son who suffers from Autism. It’s topical and fits with a new direction that Lummox is heading in; that of publishing books concerning overcoming some sort of handicap or disability. Some of the books I will be publishing next year are hard for me to read because their content deals with demons that I struggle with as well.
Are there potentials for best seller poets and could they win a Nobel prize for poetry?
On the world market? Yes, I suppose so. I doubt that this country will see one, though… there’s no money in it…